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21st Nov 2022

Outrage as FIFA boss seen laughing with controversial Saudi Arabian Crown Prince

Steve Hopkins

‘Absurd, harmful, misleading, unhinged and downright disrespectful’

Football fans and pundits are outraged after images showed FIFA‘s chief laughing in the stands with controversial Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the World Cup opening ceremony.

The governing body’s president, Gianni Infantino, was pictured deep in conversation with the prince, also known as ‘MBS’, in the royal box in Doha on Sunday.

See also: World Cup 2022: All the major action and talking points from Day Two

The image sparked debate about what it could mean for the future of the World Cup and as Saudi Arabia bids to host the 2030 tournament.

In August, the pair were earlier spotted together at the Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk fight in Saudi Arabia and at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

US intelligence agencies allege MBS approved the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The Crown Prince also stands accused of presiding over human rights violations in his country.

With FIFA’s reputation still in tatters following a series of corruption scandals and criticism over it awarding the WC to Qatar, Infantino’s closeness to the royal has angered many.

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and blocked its planes and ships in 2017, citing the nation’s alleged support for terrorism, with the ‘Gulf blockade’ only ending in January.

Journalist Laurie Whitwell summed up the feelings of many fans, tweeting: “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 suggested the image will be talked about “beyond football” and for years to come.

She explained: “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.

“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!”

One fan wrote, “Uh, Infantino sitting next to MBS doesn’t feel like a good look”, while another added: “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.”

The Prince and Infantino’s jovial moment in the stands, comes after Infantino stunned the world by slamming Qatar critics, despite its appalling record on LGBTQ+ rights and the treatment of migrant workers.

At a press conference, the president dug the hole for himself even deeper, likening his experience as a red-haired child to that of gay and disabled people, saying: “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.”

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