Infantino is the nowhere man in this bonfire of greed, vanity and despotic power | World Cup 2022
Today I feel … largely invisible. Today I feel like a boggle-eyed despot-groupie. Today I feel like essence of human avarice distilled through a series of filters, poured into a dark suit and presented on stage looking like a discredited small-town mayor with a secret.
Today I feel like I really should, for the sake of world football, start to get a grip on this chaotic Fifa World Cup.
It is hard to know whether Gianni Infantino feels any of these things right now. It is nine days since Infantino delivered his opening press conference speech, his Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock moment, his I Have a Really Horrendous And Deluded Dream.
For all its hallucinogenic qualities, that speech suggested Fifa’s president intended to run this World Cup under strict standing orders. However, in the days since, the most notable aspect of Fifa’s presence at its own super-show is its diffidence.
Infantino has gone into stealth mode. Fifa itself has seemed marginalised. An organisation defined by control-freakery, its tendency to assume quasi-governmental powers while hovering over its host like an alien tripod, has gone quiet.
Even worse, this has happened just as fires have begun to break out across this thing. A cast ranging from an angry Carlos Queiroz, to the massed brain-shouts of social media, to Infantino himself, has continued to debate the rise of the global south and the decadence of Europe, as expressed via World Cup group standings.
Mohammed bin Salman continues to circle the feast. Antony Blinken has used Wales versus the USA as a platform to present to the world Uncle Sam shaking hands with its keenest current Middle Eastern ally.
And right now Qatar 2022 feels less like the usual soft-power stage, more like a kind of real-time super-Davos, Yalta with a K-pop soundtrack. Is this really the moment for a closed-circle monarchy to start driving the world’s greatest sporting spectacle?
There have been no more public Fifa briefings in Doha. This is not unusual as tournaments go. But it is unfortunate given the many issues arising. Reporters and football administrators have spoken of being passed back and forth between host nation and governing body, questions left unanswered. Fifa’s handling of the informal/nonexistent semi-ban of rainbow items has involved vague, delayed statements. There is a sense of waiting always for the nod from the Supreme Delivery Committee.
Nobody puts Gianni in the corner. Except, it would seem, Hassan Abdullah al-Thawadi, chief executive of Qatar 2022, who some say is having a significant final pass on key details that affect supporters, federations, world football generally.
The past few days have seen confusion over the right to express even the most broadly sketched political views, most notably the spectacle of stadium guards taking away Iranian protest flags. Fifa’s statutes contain a commitment to “respecting all recognized human rights” and “striving to promote the protection of these rights”. This is in effect part of Infantino’s job description.
And yet it seems T-shirts with words as inoffensively universal as “Women” and “Freedom” are now banned in Fifa-land. Meanwhile Iran and Qatar share the world’s largest gas field. You really think you’re in control?
The end result is a dangerous and rancorous mess. Fifa and Qatar always looked the perfect fit, the perfect master and client-state. In the event Qatar appears to have overwhelmed its enablers, seized the starship controls and confined the captain to his quarters. At times one half expects to find Qatari government officials out there sternly pronouncing on refereeing appointments, player of the match gongs and the fact Gareth Southgate MUST now pick Phil Foden or squander a golden legacy.
This matters, because it is getting hot out here. The soundtrack of Qatar 2022 is a glaze of hope, love, We-Are-The-Dreamers stuff, undercut by a babbling undertone of anger and macro-grudges.
This runs right from Queiroz and Jürgen Klinsmann going toe-to-toe over cultural slights, to Serbia’s dressing-room flag reclaiming Kosovo, to John Herdman’s statement (Why John, why?) that Canada would “fuck” Croatia, to government ministers on all sides wading into the cultural frictions.
Fifa has bowed to Qatar’s will on the armband-of-love, even as Qatari officials wear their Palestinian rights symbols in the seats. LGBTQ+ bodies have called on Infantino to speak out, to feel as gay as he did nine days ago when he stood before the world as Football Jesus and promised love, harmony and a level of basic governance.
Instead Fifa’s most recent public guidance on all this is to announce that Germany are under investigation for not putting a player up at their press conference; and that the media need to use cabled internet connections as the press box wifi is in crisis. Thanks for that.
Meanwhile Infantino sits on top of this bonfire of greed, vanity and despotic power like a boggle-eyed Guy Fawkes mannequin, occasionally paraded about the place in his wheelbarrow or allowed to stand in the VVIP box and crunch his toffee apple for the cameras.
This leadership vacuum matters beyond simply the chaos on the ground. Fifa’s unchallenged primacy, its endless growth, is not a given. There has already been talk of some European nations getting itchy feet. Plans have been mooted now and then for a European and South American breakaway. Money, and the ongoing primacy of money, suggest the World Cup is too valuable to nobble itself in this way. But bridge-building and concessions are part of its success. Nothing lasts forever.
Infantino was supposed to be a technocrat when he took the top job, a safe-ish pair of hands after the debauchery of the Blatter years. He has turned out to be something much harder to gauge. Who is this person anyway? A despot’s glove puppet? An oleaginous pinocchio? A highly competent dissembler, smart enough to give a speech the western media see as deluded, but which was also perfectly pitched towards the Fifa members who will keep him in power?
With Blatter there was evidence of simple human vanity, the dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize and so on. The question of what Infantino wants is less clear. One remarkable aspect of Qatar’s control of this World Cup is that Infantino has not blinked, has not wavered in his total support. Either he simply loves power, or those powers have a degree of leverage over him that is not immediately clear.
More likely this game is being played at a level beyond such petty concerns as order on the ground. There may be fraught and divisive days in store before the final whistle. But Fifa is still expected to rake in a record $7.5bn (£6.3bn) from this messiest and most divisive of World Cups.
Saudi Arabia 2030 seems to be hardening as a possibility every day. Ignore the white noise. Just keep your eyes on the balance sheet. You get the leaders you deserve, or in football’s case the leaders your leader most wants to stand next to. Either way the global game has never looked quite so managed and muzzled and at the same time so out of control.