FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s galling ‘pick their fights’ advice to women is his latest glaring hypocrisy

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FIFA President Gianni Infantino has told women to “pick their fights” ahead of the World Cup final - but has he considered simply doing something himself?

It wouldn’t be a major football tournament without FIFA President Gianni Infantino shoving his foot down his own throat until his toenails are tickling his tonsils, would it?

Last year, as he tried to deflect criticism over Qatar’s hosting of the men’s World Cup finals, he gave his infamous “Today I feel gay” speech. Now, ahead of the women’s World Cup final between England and Spain on Sunday, he has told women to “pick their fights” in order to “push the doors” open towards equality. It’s a comment as inane and insulting as any in his long history of tawdry remarks.

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“With men, with FIFA, you will find open doors,” he said, flying in the face of decades of feminist scholarship and all the hard evidence you could possibly ask for, later adding. “You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do. You do it. Just do it."

Gianni Infantino was re-elected as FIFA President without opposition in March.Gianni Infantino was re-elected as FIFA President without opposition in March.
Gianni Infantino was re-elected as FIFA President without opposition in March. | AFP via Getty Images

Let’s start with the obvious question, Mr. Infantino – why is it on women to adjust men’s behaviour? Why does it fall to women to tell men not to be sexist, for instance, or to give them equal pay, the issue which his comments alluded to? Why do women have to pick fights at all, regardless of whether they’re the ‘right’ ones?

If Infantino accepts that there are continuing inequalities of gender within football, why not try fixing some of them in his capacity as head of the sport’s global organising body, rather than demanding that the people on the receiving end of those inequities do the hard yards for him? If he realises that men act in inappropriate ways, why not put the onus on men to change their actions rather than requiring female encouragement to do so?

The lack of gender parity, in terms of finances, is not in dispute – unless you’re in FIFA: “Equal pay in the World Cup?,” asked Infantino. “We are going in that direction already.”

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Not very quickly though, Gianni. The prize money on offer for this year’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand is a total of £86.1m ($110m), a record but still only a quarter of the prize fund for the men’s edition, which stood at £346m ($440m) in Qatar – which is especially egregious when you consider how much more funding the men’s game, which is much richer, gets in the first place.

FIFA also refuses to pay the prize money directly to players and coaching or medical staff, sending it instead to federations despite the protestations of FIFPRO, the global players’ union. Several federations have been accused of taking money earned by the women’s teams and keeping it away from them or refusing to pay agreed bonuses. Issues over pay blighted the preparation of several teams during this World Cup cycle, including finalists South Africa where the President of the AFC had to step in to ensure the players were paid by their own federation - while Jamaica had to crowdfund their travel.

So no, Gianni, FIFA is not moving towards equality, at least not at a rate anyone should consider acceptable. Which is, of course, why women have to fight in the first instance – because FIFA won’t do it for them.

But his crass comments ahead of the weekend’s showpiece event rankle especially because they amount to an acknowledgement that there are issues that need addressing by FIFA – but also implies the complete unwillingness to do anything about those issues under their own steam. Why do women have to “pick their fights” when FIFA could do some research themselves and reach out to women in the game to find out what needs fixing? Why is this a fight in the first place, and not an open and respectful conversation? FIFA could make it just that, but as Infantino’s comments suggest, simply refuse to do so.

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FIFA have been accused of failing to address concerns over the treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people in Qatar.FIFA have been accused of failing to address concerns over the treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people in Qatar.
FIFA have been accused of failing to address concerns over the treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people in Qatar. | Getty Images

Of course, Infantino managed to press a few more of the wrong buttons on his way to angering half of the footballing world, dusting off the dreadful old cliché that his fatherhood qualifies him as a feminist.

“I say to all the women - and you know I have four daughters, so I have a few at home - that you have the power to change. Pick the right battles,” he said, a refrain heard from many misogynistic men down the years who wish to use their spouses and children as a shield against critique.

How could anyone possibly be sexist when they have wives and daughters that they love so much, an uncountable number of sexists throughout history have asked? Well, there have been plenty of misogynists around the world who, based on biological probability, had mothers, and it didn’t seem to stop them from hating women. And while having a daughter may well change a man, it clearly hasn’t changed Infantino sufficiently to stop him from sending up sop offerings when substantive change is being asked for.

In any case, the entire concept of demanding that people protesting injustice “pick their fights” in a way that serves the convenience of the people with the power to create that change really rankles in its own right. People only protest ‘noisily’ when polite discourse has failed. Women have been asking for parity of pay and opportunity for decades, for example, and have been largely ignored in many spheres. And so now women in positions of power in football use their hard-earned pedestal to kick up a fuss, and get told that they’re disturbing the peace – which would only be a fair complaint if anything had been achieved with pacification in the first place.

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It’s a pretty common complaint about political protest in many other areas – the people in power, or at least in positions to make a contribution, tend to acknowledge the right to protest, provided it doesn’t disturb them in any way. Think of all the complaints about Just Stop Oil’s recent protests during sporting events, for instance – they are endlessly told to stop disrupting such events and to make their protests in a ‘peaceful’ way. Never mind that environmental activists have been doing exactly that for decades now, and gotten nowhere despite science being firmly on their side and the future health of the planet being on the line.

A Just Stop Oil protestor is dragged away by police after interrupting Everton’s game with Newcastle United.A Just Stop Oil protestor is dragged away by police after interrupting Everton’s game with Newcastle United.
A Just Stop Oil protestor is dragged away by police after interrupting Everton’s game with Newcastle United. | AFP via Getty Images

If peaceful protest worked, people would do it. If diplomatically picking the ‘right fights’ in the ‘right way’ worked, that would be the go-to for activists everywhere. But it doesn’t. And so people who care about the environmental catastrophe the world is being subjected to drop a jigsaw puzzle on Centre Court at Wimbledon, or cable-tie themselves to a goalpost at Goodison Park, in the desperate hope that people might hear what they’re saying – and, by the same token, women in football use the press to vent their frustration over the underfunding of the women’s game.

And then the British government complain that five minutes of disruption to a tennis match is too much to bear, and FIFA whinge about the battles the women in question are picking, and generally everyone trying to make the world a slightly better place is asked to keep the noise down. We end up in a situation where standing in the way of the British Grand Prix for a few minutes is far too much, but doing anything less achieves the square root of nothing. Protestors of all stripes are asked to walk a tightrope so thin that it couldn’t possibly support any weight.

If Infantino, or anyone in a similar position of power and responsibility, would like a little more peace and quiet as they go about their business in future – perhaps they could try solving the issues at hand? They might find everyone is a quite a bit quieter afterwards, and then maybe we’d all be happy. It probably isn’t worth holding our breath, though.

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