Rwanda gaffe nails FIFA president as the game’s most toxic narcissist

Just when you thought it was safe to escape soccer figures making gratingly inappropriate historical analogies, up pops Gianni Infantino with the most egregious example yet. In scenes reminiscent of a Kim Jong-un speech in Pyongyang, where none of the assembled courtiers dare to be the first to stop applauding, the FIFA president swept unopposed to a third term by acclamation. And amid the mass genuflection inside Kigali’s BK Arena, he milked the moment by likening his first win in 2016 to Rwanda’s recovery from genocide.

Describing how an unnamed Rwandan official had told him, during his election campaign, “we love you, but we’re not going to support you”, Infantino reflected that he had been persuaded not to give up by a visit to the country’s memorial to the 1994 genocide, during which 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. “I said, ‘Who am I to give up,’” he recalled. “What this country has suffered and how this country came back up is inspiring for the entire world. So, I certainly couldn’t give up because someone was telling me something. I stayed, I continued to campaign, I was elected FIFA president.”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino in Kigali, Rwanda.Credit:AP

Infantino seems to believe this is one of the great redemptive arcs, the tale of the platitudinous Swiss lawyer with the lust for power, who simply would not be thwarted in his quest for a job promising unlimited private jets and homilies from African dictators. Yes, Gianni, maybe they will make a film about it. Then again, given that FIFA’s last dalliance with the silver screen, United Passions, became the most critically derided motion picture in history, maybe not.

FIFA’s detachment from reality is so far advanced that it has long since rendered satire redundant. So, tempting as it might be to dwell on the absurdity of Infantino invoking Rwanda’s tragedy for his own ends, the only appropriate response is one of unvarnished contempt. Infantino has a habit of going off-piste, as the memory of his toe-curling “today, I feel gay” ramblings in Qatar remind us. But this particular parallel felt premeditated, which makes it only worse. The mere idea that he saw no problem in comparing his path with those of Rwandan Tutsis annihilated with medieval barbarity shows he is not fit to inhabit any office, let alone to preside over the one truly global game.

The horrors of Rwanda were on such a scale that for many Rwandans, the scars will never heal. Many veteran war correspondents who reported there were never the same again. The BBC’s Fergal Keane stepped back from the corporation in 2020 after years struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It simply is not possible to convey the atmosphere of terror,” he wrote. “For some of us, it has left an enduring mark, a sense that we failed, not so much as journalists, but as human beings.”

It is unspeakable that Infantino should co-opt one of humanity’s most monstrous acts for his own self-aggrandisement. It might not be surprising, given his history of slathering praise on Vladimir Putin and of travelling to the Central African Republic, a nation haunted by kleptocratic rule and civil war, to accept a national recognition award. But it is craven even by his standards, a confirmation of how his toxic narcissism demeans everything it touches. Infantino found himself acclaimed on stage by Rwandan president Paul Kagame, a leader who, as Kigali-based Anjan Sundaram wrote in the London Telegraph last year, has chosen a path of “sophisticated, controlling dictatorship”. Remind you of anybody? Infantino postures as soccer’s great democratiser of the post-Sepp Blatter era when he is cut from the same cloth.

The true Infantino is hiding in plain sight. He is Blatter in a slightly sharper suit, with the same cynical rhetoric, delusions of moral rectitude, and – as his Rwandan reference proves – the same penchant for crass insensitivity. The instinct is to dismiss it all as one elaborate joke. But frankly, with this risible buffoon at the top of soccer for another four years, the joke is on us.

The Telegraph, London

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