FIFA president Gianni Infantino has sparked uproar across the football world after being spotted sitting alongside Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the opening match of the Qatar World Cup.
Qatar became the first host nation in football history to lose the opening game of the World Cup amid farcical scenes as the showpiece event kicked off in the Gulf state on Sunday (Monday AEDT). The controversy-laced tournament opened with the hosts outplayed and embarrassed in a 2-0 defeat to Ecuador in front of 67,372 fans at Al Bayt Stadium.
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Sitting there watching the drama in Qatar unfold was FIFA's president, who was joined by members of Qatar's royal family and prominent Arab leaders, including Saudi's Crown Prince.
In a show of regional solidarity, Saudi Arabai's Crown Prince was joined by Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, two leaders who had boycotted Qatar for years. Not present were the leaders of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the two other nations involved in the boycott.
There were no major Western leaders in attendance, as Qatar is under intense scrutiny for its treatment of the migrant workers who prepped the nation for the World Cup, as well as the LGBTQ community. Gay and lesbian sex is criminalised in the country.
However, it was the sight of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cosying up to the FIFA president that left a bad taste in the mouths of many observers.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been linked with a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup, with Mohammed bin Salman in particular lobbying hard over the last few years to spruik his country's credentials.
Saudi Arabia has courted widespread controversy over the country's own human rights record and concerted efforts to change the public perception of the country through various 'sportswashing' initiatives such as LIV Golf.
The joint bid from Saudi Arabia and Egypt for the 2030 World Cup is expected to be challenged by rival joint bids from Europe (a Spain-Portugal-Ukraine combo) and South America (Colombia-Ecuador-Peru).
The significance of Mohammed bin Salman sitting next to Infantino in Qatar and potential to boost Saudi Arabia's push for the 2030 FIFA World Cup was not lost on viewers.
Uh, Infantino sitting next to MBS doesn't feel like a good look pic.twitter.com/yi153GgC60
— Ryan Bailey (@RyanJayBailey) November 20, 2022
If FIFA grants the Saudi Arabia/Egypt bid the 2030 World Cup hosting duties then we know they’ve learned zero lessons from the Qatar debacle https://t.co/3SX5LSE1Jv
— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) November 20, 2022
— Russland Total (RT) 🇷🇺 🇩🇪🇨🇭🇦🇹 (@RtTotal) November 20, 2022
The way MBS was seated next to Fifa man I wouldn't be surprised that 2030 worldcup is held in Saudi ☺️ https://t.co/hEdVEUSerh
— Sehar مفتي (@Smufti87) November 20, 2022
“The picture that will resonate and stems beyond football and we might be talking about in a few years is (Infantino) sitting next to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Sky Sports reporter Melissa Reddy said.
“Saudi Arabia are leading a bid to host the 2030 World Cup with Greece and Egypt, they want that desperately.”
The opening of the tournament was the culmination of 12 years of preparations that have transformed Qatar and have also exposed it to a barrage of criticism including over human rights.
FIFA president slammed for bizarre speech
Before the World Cup got underway, FIFA president Gianni Infantino left the sporting world gobsmacked after using his opening press conference to offer a perplexing defence of the host nation.
Infantino's speech, in which he attempted to express his support and solidarity with migrant workers and the LGBTI+ community, was roundly panned across the world.
Homosexuality is forbidden in Qatar, which has sparked protests from a number of teams including the Socceroos, while the nation has also been heavily criticised for its extensive use and alleged mistreatment of thousands of migrant workers recruited to build the eight stadiums required for the tournament.
Qatar also backflipped on a commitment to allow beer to be sold inside World Cup stadiums just days before the tournament was set to begin.
Labelling critics of Qatar "hypocrites", Infantino pointed to the last 3000 years of European history as proof the broader Western world was out of place in criticising the Middle Eastern nation for their socially conservative policies.
"I am European," Infantino said in his address. "For what we have been doing for 3000 years around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3000 years before giving moral lessons.
"I have difficulties understanding the criticism ... we should all educate ourselves. Many things are not perfect but reform and change takes time.
"This one-sided moral lesson is just hypocrisy. I wonder why no-one recognises the progress made here since 2016.
"It is not easy to take the critics of a decision that was made 12 years ago. Qatar is ready. It will be the best World Cup ever."
Infantino continued though, also attempting to express his support for sections of the community said to be marginalised by Qatari society.
“Today I feel Qatari, today I feel Arab, today I feel African, today I feel gay, today I feel disabled, today I feel a migrant worker,” he said.
“I’m not Qatari, African, gay, disabled and I’m not really a migrant worker but I know what it means to be discriminated and bullied, as a foreigner in a foreign country, as a child at school I was bullied because I had red hair and freckles. I was bullied for that.
“There are 1 billion disabled people in the world... and nobody cares.”
Infantino's comments represent another blow to the credibility of the World Cup, which has been tainted ever since Qatar was selected to host the 2022 tournament 12 years ago.
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