DOHA: FIFA president Gianni Infantino blasted the “hypocrisy” of Western critics of Qatar’s human rights record on Saturday, making a passionate defence of the World Cup in the Gulf state on the eve of the kick-off.
The build-up to the tournament has been dominated by concerns over Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community, to the visible annoyance of organisers.
Qatar officials say their country has been the target of “racism” and “double standards” and they point to the reforms on working conditions and safety that have been hailed as groundbreaking in the region.
Football itself again took a back seat on Saturday, with the focus firmly on off-field politics just 24 hours before hosts Qatar were due to open the tournament against Ecuador.
Infantino, speaking at his opening press conference of the tournament in Doha, had harsh words for critics of Qatar.
“This moral lesson-giving — one-sided — is just hypocrisy,” said the global football supremo.
“I don’t want to give you any lessons of life, but what is going on here is profoundly, profoundly unjust.”
Infantino’s remarks drew a stinging response from the rights group Amnesty International, which accused the FIFA chief of “brushing aside legitimate criticism.”
“Gianni Infantino is dismissing the enormous price paid by migrant workers to make his flagship tournament possible – as well as FIFA’s responsibility for it,” Amnesty said.
“Demands for equality, dignity and compensation cannot be treated as some sort of culture war.”
Another issue that has dominated the build-up to the tournament is the sale of beer in the Islamic state, which severely restricts alcohol consumption.
Organisers on Friday performed a dramatic U-turn, banning beer sales around stadiums just 48 hours before kickoff.
Infantino made light of the last-minute change on Saturday.
“I think personally if for three hours a day you cannot drink a beer, you will survive,” he said.
Elsewhere on Saturday, there were hints of another brewing controversy over the decision of several players — including England captain Harry Kane and German skipper Manuel Neuer — to wear a “OneLove” armband to promote diversity and inclusion.
The move raises the prospect of disciplinary action from FIFA, who on Saturday revealed plans to make their own alternative armbands available to teams. The FIFA armbands will feature a different social campaign for each round.
Neuer said however that he intends to wear the rainbow-coloured “OneLove” armband.
“Other European nations are wearing (the armband) and it is good we are doing it together,” he said.
Cristiano Ronaldo jetted into Qatar late on Friday, desperate to focus on football after an explosive tirade against his club, Manchester United.
The Portugal forward, who has dominated global football for the past 15 years alongside Argentina’s Lionel Messi, will be playing in his fifth and likely final World Cup.
The 37-year-old, who has a world-record 117 international goals, is aiming to become the first man to score in five World Cups.
Ronaldo appears to be headed for the exit door at Old Trafford but earlier this week pledged “total and absolute focus on the work of the national team” in a social media post.
Ronaldo’s Portugal team-mate Bernardo Silva insisted the controversy surrounding the veteran would not distract from preparations for the tournament.
“The news from England has nothing to do with the national team,” said Silva, denying there were any tensions in the Portuguese camp.
“I don’t see any strange atmosphere in our team between Cristiano and another player,” he said.
Almost all of the heavyweight teams have now arrived in Qatar, with the notable exception of five-time winners Brazil, who are due to land late on Saturday.
Brazil, boasting a star-studded forward line led by Neymar, are favourites to win the tournament for the first time since 2002, with Messi’s Argentina and France also heavily fancied.
Croatia, surprise World Cup finalists in Russia in 2018, warned they have what it takes to go deep in the tournament again.
Led by inspirational captain Luka Modric, Croatia reached the final four years ago in Russia before losing 4-2 to France.
“I think we have a really good chance to repeat something similar to what we did in Russia,” said forward Marko Livaja.