The sight of FIFA chief Gianni Infantino laughing with controversial Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the World Cup opening ceremony has sparked outrage among football fans and pundits.
The governing body’s president 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 – and many journalists and supporters were quick to lash out at the meeting and what it could mean for the future of the World Cup.
It’s not the first time the pair 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 stands accused of presiding over human rights violations in his country.
With FIFA trying to rehabilitate its image after a series of corruption scandals and amid widespread, instense criticism of the decision to award the tournament to Qatar, Infantino’s closeness to the royal raised eyebrows at a time when Saudi Arabia is bidding 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 this year
Journalist Laurie Whitwell summed up the feelings of many fans when he tweeted: ‘Mohammed bin Salman sitting next to Gianni Infantino at the opening match of the World Cup a second time in a row.
‘In 2018, Russia were playing Saudi Arabia. Now, a sign of which way the 2030 World Cup wind is blowing?’
Sky News’ Melissa Reddy said the image of the pair at the ceremony will be talked about ‘beyond football’ and ‘might talked about in a few years’.
‘That is instructive for a few reasons. One, Saudi Arabia are leading a bid to host the 2030 World Cup with Greece and Egypt. They want that desperately,’ she explained.
‘The other reason is because of the Gulf blockade, which only ended last year in January.’
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 pointless and destructive the Saudi-led four-year boycott of Qatar was. They’re all friends again now, just in time for the World Cup!’
Fans were blunt about the message they thought the pair were sending to the world.
‘Uh, Infantino sitting next to MBS doesn’t feel like a good look,’ wrote Ryan Bailey
‘I think the fact they show MBS sitting next to Gianni Infantino for the opening ceremony while they cut to a CGI stadium in the middle of a sand dune really does encapsulate everything this world cup stands for,’ tweeted Garrett Rampon.
‘The USA backed immunity for MBS two days ago at the request of Gianni Infantino so he could sit next o 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, in which he slammed criticism of the decision to give Qatar the Cup despite its record on LGBTQ+ rights and the treatment of migrant workers.
The president even likened his own experience as a red-headed child to that of gay and disabled people in his press conference.
Infantino said: ‘Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel (like) a migrant worker.
‘Of course I am not Qatari, I am not an Arab, I am not African, I am not gay, I am not disabled.
‘But I feel like it, because I know what it means to be discriminated, to be bullied, as a foreigner in a foreign country. As a child I was bullied – because I had red hair and freckles, plus I was Italian so imagine.’
Fans reacted by calling the speech ‘bizarre’ and ‘tone deaf’, with one stating: ‘Confirmation, as if it was needed that FIFA and Infantino have absolutely no concept of what genuine inclusivity involves.’