By Andrew Warshaw
July 13 – After a tournament that has succeeded all expectations on and off the field, Gianni Infantino wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to heap praise on Russia’s World Cup organisers.
Sitting in a red volunteers tracksuit as if to portray himself as a man of the people, the FIFA president used his end-of-tournament press conference today to congratulate the hosts whilst conveniently side-stepping a number of sensitive issues that might have embarrassed them.
“It’s been a fantastic, incredible, unbelievable World Cup,” said Infantino, leaving few adjectives unused. “I’ve been saying for a couple of years that it would be the best one ever and now I can say it with even more conviction.”
But just as important, he said, has been the off-the-field success in terms of infrastructure, smooth running, carnival atmosphere and legacy.
Thanking just about everyone involved (including, not surprisingly, Russian president Vladimir Putin), Infantino lauded the fact that nothing untoward has taken place despite all the pre-tournament concerns and made the point that attitudes (primarily western) towards Russia had changed.
“Russia has become a real football country, where football has become part of its DNA. This World Cup has also changed the perception of the world towards Russia. Everyone who has come has discovered a country keen to show the world that what is sometimes said does not actually happen. A lot of pre-conceived opinions have changed. Everyone has seen the true nature of all the people.”
No-one who has been at the tournament, however briefly, would disagree with that or fail to have been impressed by the mixture of efficiency and friendliness.
But it is important to make the point that Infantino’s comments echoed sentiments expressed by FIFA at the end of so many previous World Cups.
Invariably the hosts endeavour to put on their best face. It’s what happens when everyone goes home that rarely gets reported. Infantino may have trumpeted legacy but the real legacy will be whether Russian football – and society in general – can maintain the same sense of compassion and togetherness once the party is over on Sunday.
Infantino, understandably, was not prepared to go down that particular road. Asked by one reporter where Fifa drew the moral red lines, he answered diplomatically: “There are many injustices in the world, not in one country, one region or one area.”
During a one-hour briefing, Infantino went over familiar ground: his preference for multiple World Cup bids to host 48 finalists; a promise that Qatar will be consulted fully before any decision is made on expansion for 2022; the imbalance between European nations and the rest of the world.
But he couldn’t end the globally streamed press conference without launching a passionate defence of the video assistant referee (VAR) system, which made its World Cup debut in Russia and split opinion along the way.
Infantino was clearly bemused at opposition to implementation of the system, which up till now has corrected 16 game-changing refereeing decisions and discouraged violent conduct.
“When you check your vocabulary and look at the word progress, progress means making things better, to improve things compared to the past,” he said. “Never again with VAR, for instance, will you have a goal scored from an offside position. This is finished.”
“VAR is not changing football, it is making football more honest and helping referees make the right decisions. It has worked well. It’s not about feelings or perceptions, it’s about facts.”
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