The image of FIFA chief Gianni Infantino laughing with Saudi Arabia’s controversial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the World Cup opening ceremony has sparked outrage among soccer fans and pundits.
The president of the governing body was seen deep in conversation with the prince, also known as ‘MBS’, in the royal box during the opening of the tournament in Doha on Sunday night, with many journalists and supporters quick to lash out at the meeting and what it could mean for the future of the World Cup.
It is not the first time that they have been seen together at a major sporting event; they enjoyed each other’s company at the opening of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, then at the heavyweight title fight between boxers Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk in Saudi Arabia this August.
US intelligence agencies have alleged that MBS approved the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and the crown prince is accused of presiding over human rights violations in his country.
Infantino was criticized when he was seen laughing with the Saudi crown prince (pictured, right) at the opening ceremony in Doha on Sunday night.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (second from left) delivers a speech as the FIFA President sits next to Mohammed bin Salman
With FIFA trying to rehabilitate its image after a series of corruption scandals and amid widespread intense criticism of the decision to award the tournament to Qatar, Infantino’s closeness to royalty raised eyebrows at a time when Saudi Arabia is running to host the 2030 World Cup.
Saudi Arabia also severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and blocked its planes and ships from its airspace and maritime territory in 2017, citing the nation’s alleged support for terrorism. The ‘Gulf blockade’ only ended in January of this year
Journalist Laurie Whitwell summed up the sentiments of many fans when she tweeted: “Mohammed bin Salman sitting next to Gianni Infantino in the opening game of the World Cup for the second time in a row.”
‘In 2018, Russia was playing Saudi Arabia. Now, a sign of which way the 2030 World Cup wind is blowing?’
Sky News’ Melissa Reddy said the couple’s image will be talked about at the ceremony “beyond football” and “could be talked about in a few years”.
That is instructive for several reasons. One, Saudi Arabia is leading a bid to host the 2030 World Cup with Greece and Egypt. They want that desperately,” he explained.
“The other reason is because of the blockade of the Gulf, which ended in January of last year.”
MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan tweeted: ‘MBS sitting in the box next to the Emir of Qatar at the opening ceremony is a reminder of how futile and destructive the four-year Saudi-led boycott of Qatar was. Now they’re all friends again, just in time for the World Cup!
Fans were outspoken about the message they thought the couple was sending out to the world.
“Uh Infantino sitting next to MBS doesn’t look good,” Ryan Bailey wrote.
“I think the fact that they show MBS sitting next to Gianni Infantino for the opening ceremony while cutting to a CGI stadium in the middle of a sand dune really sums up everything this world cup stands for,” Garrett Rampon tweeted.
“The United States endorsed immunity for MBS two days ago at the request of Gianni Infantino so he could sit next to him and not feel bad,” another fan wrote.
The pair’s interaction came after Infantino stunned the sport with a tone-deaf speech on Saturday, slamming criticism of the decision to give Qatar the Cup despite its record on LGBTQ+ rights and treatment of workers. migrants.
Infantino (pictured giving a speech at the opening ceremony) has also come under fire after making a bizarre speech in defense of the decision to give Qatar the Cup.
The president even compared his own experience as a redheaded boy to that of gay and disabled people at his press conference.
Infantino said: ‘Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel (like) a migrant worker.
‘Of course I’m not Qatari, I’m not Arab, I’m not African, I’m not gay, I’m not disabled.
‘But I feel like it, because I know what it means to be discriminated against, to be intimidated, as a foreigner in a foreign country. When I was a kid, I was bullied, because she had red hair and freckles, plus she was Italian, so go figure.
Fans reacted by calling the speech ‘weird’ and ‘deaf’, with one saying: ‘Confirmation, as if it were needed, that FIFA and Infantino have absolutely no concept of what genuine inclusion entails.’