Gianni Infantino and performance theatre…of otherness

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 19, 2022

Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, is no philosopher. He’s a lawyer, a career sports administrator, a Swiss-Italian man with a shiny pate and a face as smooth and creamy as a baby’s bottom. A Caucasian baby’s bottom.

So the context of Mr Infantino’s extraordinary hour-long address to journalists in Doha, 24 hours before the 2022 World Cup kick-off, needs to be clear.

The monologue – half-lament, half-criticism, partly angry, partly meditative – could have qualified as a one-person multimedia play, a piece of theatre that pushes the boundaries in a daring and unpredictable way. It was reminiscent of Yoko Ono’s 1964 performance art, ‘Cut Piece’, in which the Japanese artist knelt on an empty stage with a pair of scissors in front of her and encouraged members of the audience to come on stage one by one and cut off any piece of her clothing. Like Yoko Ono, Mr Infantino offered up himself to be savaged. “You want to criticise,” he told journalists. “You can crucify me. I’m here for that. Don’t criticise anyone. Don’t criticise Qatar. Let people enjoy this World Cup.”

He began his address with the following words: “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.” He then went on to acknowledge: “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 [against], to be bullied, as a foreigner in a foreign country.”

Apparently Gianni, the boy, had been bullied because of his red hair and freckles. How does that compare with Qatar’s experience, as the long-criticised, much-criticised host of the World Cup? Mr Infantino seemed to suggest that his own narrative as a target of abuse somehow chimed with the onslaught on Qatar. Does it? He chose a likely tool – his own hurt feelings as a boy – to speak about the big picture, colonialism and historical markers of a people’s aspirations and abilities. He said: “I think for what we Europeans have been doing [for] the last 3,000 years we should be apologising for [the] next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.”

His notion of historical timelines may be a bit off (3,000 years of European misbehaviour?) but what about the sum and substance of Mr Infantino’s performance theatre?

It’s not clear if it worked, though it is hard to pull down. The thing about the narrative of alienation and the theatre of otherness is this: It is a strange, capacious thing. It is typical only of itself and it envelopes many worlds. There are very few truly universal human experiences other than to be born and to die. For the rest, the artist can claim to fill in any gap.

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