Lingering divisions over FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar overshadowed the annual congress of football’s world governing body on Thursday, forcing its president Gianni Infantino to insist that the event had already brought change to the Arab state.
Just 235 days from the start of the first World Cup in the Middle East, a rare female voice in international football stood up at the congress to state that awarding the event to Qatar 12 years ago had been “unacceptable” because of its human rights record.
Lise Klaveness, head of the Norwegian football association, said FIFA had to act as a “role model” over human rights and other moral issues such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Debate over Qatar diverted attention from Infantino’s announcement that he would be standing for a new term in 2023 and that FIFA would make a record seven billion dollars in revenue for its 2019-2022 accounting cycle.
Much of that comes from television and marketing revenues linked to the Qatar World Cup but FIFA and the hosts have repeatedly been forced onto the defensive over the event.
Klaveness highlighted human rights in the host country.
“The migrant workers injured or the families of those who died in the build-up to the World Cup must be cared for,” she said in a speech at the end of the carefully choreographed congress when individual federations were allowed to speak out.
– Workers and minority rights –
A handful of workers have died building new World Cup stadiums in the country but international agencies have sought improvements to Qatar’s general labour record.
“There is no room for employers who do not ensure the freedom and safety of World Cup workers,” she added.
All World Cup hosts had to guarantee the rights of gay and transgender people. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar.
Klaveness also accused FIFA leaders of making a “hesitant” response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Russian team has been excluded from the World Cup but the country remains in FIFA. The head of the Ukraine football association sent a video message to the congress. Dressed in a yellow and blue bullet proof vest he vowed his country would “beat the aggressor”.
Klaveness’s comments on Qatar echoed statements made by several European nations and teams ahead of the tournament that runs from November 21 to December 18.
Straight away, Qatar’s organising committee chief Hassan al-Thawadi took to the stage to say he was disappointed that Klaveness had made no attempt to speak with Qatari authorities before speaking out.
He said the first World Cup in the Middle East, would leave “truly transformational social, human, economic and environmental legacies.”
Qatar feels that much of the criticism it has faced has been unfair. It has ended a labour system in which employers could stop migrant workers leaving the country or changing jobs. It has also imposed a minimum wage.
Infantino said Qatar was “no paradise” but that it has made important progress since being awarded the tournament in 2010.
– Infantino to stand for re-election –
He said Qatar has made progress in a few years “that in other countries has taken decades”.
“The only way to provoke positive change is through dialogue and engagement,” he said adding that Qatar would put on “the best World Cup ever”.
FIFA announced on Wednesday that 800,000 of the three million tickets had already been sold. An even bigger surge for the second round of sales is expected after the draw is held in Doha on Friday and fans know who their countries will play against.
The success of the Qatar tournament could play a decisive role in Infantino’s bid for a third term as FIFA president.
“I want to tell you that I will be standing for re-election next year,” Infantino said at the end of the congress.
The 52-year-old Swiss-Italian lawyer was secretary general of European body UEFA before taking over FIFA in 2016 after the corruption scandal that brought down predecessor Sepp Blatter.
FIFA has since tightened its governance and increased the amount of its huge resources given back to national federations.
But the Qatar World Cup and proposals for a World Cup every two years have tested his leadership.
Infantino appeared to backtrack on the biennial tournament which is strongly opposed by Europe and South America, insisting he had only acted on congress instructions to study the feasibility of the idea.