The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have been at home on Planet FIFA.
Anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time at world football’s governing body knows a few people who consider themselves “Supermen,” and his doctrine of eternal recurrence — the idea that time repeats itself over and over again — could live in any of the 72 FIFA have been developed previous Congresses.
But Nietzsche’s quote “there are no facts, only interpretations” is the perfect summary of what happened on Thursday at the 73rd FIFA Congress in Kigali, Rwanda.
The main deal was supposed to be a vote to decide who would lead FIFA for the next four years, but with no candidate to oppose incumbent Gianni Infantino, it became an election with a standing ovation. A ringing affirmation, then, except that some stood up but didn’t clap.
“All who love me, and I know there are so many, and those who hate me, I know there are a few: I love you all,” Infantino said. “Of course especially today.”
A win is a win, and it was Infantino’s third win in a FIFA presidential election, although the first in 2016 no longer counts among the three terms he served shortly after that triumph, as it ended someone else’s term. So his third term is actually his second, and he can now continue until 2031.
Infantino opened Congress with an anecdote about his first visit to Rwanda in early 2016, when he was campaigning and trying to persuade African football associations to vote for him.
His mission was a failure – Africa had already decided to rally behind their rival, a Bahraini king who still runs Asian football – but the 52-year-old Swiss-Italian told the audience at the congress that he was inspired To continue fighting for the Presidency by visiting the Rwandan Genocide Memorial.
Kagame, left, and Infantino (Photo: Rwandan Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
To some in the room, it sounded like he was comparing his refusal to surrender – something that was never questioned at the time – to Rwanda’s recovery from one of the worst examples of ethnic violence in history. For others, it was just a clumsy anecdote.
When asked to clarify his statements at the post-Convention media conference, Infantino angrily dismissed the idea that he would ever draw a comparison between a horrifying historical event and a chapter in his own life. That came as a surprise to those in the room who heard him speak in Doha last year about how, from his experiences as the red-haired son of Italian immigrants in Switzerland, he knows what it’s like to be racially abused or criminalized for being gay.
There were further examples of misinterpretations at the media conference.
Infantino opened the session by telling the room that some journalists had been “mean” to him, making claims about his autocratic style, his tax affairs, the latest investigation into secret meetings he held with the Swiss Attorney General (the May or not was bugged by ex-CIA agents working for Qatar), his relationship with celebrity chef Salt Bae, and a myriad of other misconceptions, we all had to listen to yet another “Gianni Infantino monologue.”
In this 20-minute tirade, shorter than the hour he gave on the eve of the World Cup in Qatar, he berated reporters for “giving space” to crooks who criticize him “to show off” and urged us to “be a little more factual” in our coverage and suggested that we don’t like him because he doesn’t speak to us very often.
When this journalist told him his speech “Today I am Qatar”, he was not criticized for making a snide remark about having red hair and freckles as a child, but for telling hundreds of journalists that their coverage of, how Qatar failed to take care of him The hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who flocked to the Gulf state were racially motivated.
Infantino dismissed this, saying he only used the term to describe those who claimed the mainly Indian fans in Qatar who supported England and other countries were “fake”.
Again, this felt like an interesting take on his tirade against Western colonialism, especially as he spent a few minutes in Doha telling us how hypocritical we all were for seeing the huge – but patchy, controversial and possibly temporary – progress made by Qatar did not want to admit relationship with migrant workers. This was news to dozens in the room who had spent years reporting the views of genuine labor rights experts, who repeatedly said Qatar had made some progress but still had work to do.
At this point, however, no one was quite sure where they stood or what was going on. Infantino was furious, the media seething, especially those who had traveled to Kigali from Scandinavia but were now ignored in the media conference because they could ask the President about taxes, criminal investigations and other examples of meanness.
But Infantino wasn’t the only one throwing out interpretations.
The second speaker at the congress was Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. He picked up where Infantino left off in Doha by urging audiences to “leave bad politics out of sport”. By bad policy, he meant the “constant, hypocritical criticism” of Qatar’s failure to properly count how many migrant workers died building World Cup infrastructure, or to adequately compensate their families.
Kagame, who knows a thing or two about landslide victories in unopposed elections, then said that those who tried to hold Qatar accountable were basically just racists, which is quite an indictment when those racists Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, global includes unions and a United Nations special rapporteur.
The good news is that, under pressure from the notorious colonialists, the Football Association of Norway, FIFA has finally agreed to undertake an “assessment” of what Qatar has and hasn’t done in terms of labor reforms and hold a debate on how much is to be expected from a humble organizer of sports competitions like FIFA when it comes to these major social issues.
This “assessment” is made by the FIFA Sub-Committee on Human Rights and Social Responsibility. Perhaps it can also try to balance the seeming paradox that Kigali is temporarily “the capital of the world” because FIFA brought its annual meeting to the city, with FIFA’s modest inability to tell the truth to the hosts of their tournaments.
Perhaps it could then turn its attention to the difference between Qatar’s ‘best’ World Cup ever and the ‘biggest’ World Cup that Canada, Mexico and the United States will host in 2026. No facts, only superlatives.
However, one undeniable fact was delivered in Kigali: FIFA rolls in it.
After originally projecting revenues of $6.4 billion (£5.3 billion) between 2019 and 2022, sales for the “Qatar Cycle” were $7.5 billion despite the impact of the pandemic. The revenue estimate for the 2023-26 cycle is $11 billion and that doesn’t include the “few billions” Infantino expects from its new 32-team Club World Cup in 2025.
As a result of all this commercial success, Infantino’s 211 voters’ annual stipends have increased sevenfold since 2016, and there’s much more to come.
“If a CEO said that to his shareholders, I think they would want to keep the CEO forever,” Infantino joked.
Or at least we think he was joking. When every other fact is a matter of opinion, it can be difficult to tell what day of the week it is on Planet FIFA, let alone if four more years could turn into 40.
(Top Photo: Presidency of Rwanda/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)