The Welsh first minister has defended his decision to travel to Qatar for the World Cup, saying he feels that the citizens of Wales want their country’s leader there despite concerns about human rights and working conditions.

Speaking in Doha on Sunday, Mark Drakeford admitted that the decision to attend was finely balanced but he said he believed it would have been wrong to leave seats allocated to the Welsh government at the opening ceremony and matches unoccupied.

“It’s a closely run thing,” he said. “The arguments that are made by people who have chosen not to come are absolutely real and to be respected. In the end our conclusion was that people in Wales would not have wanted to see a seat for Wales left empty. It really is a very special opportunity to promote Wales on the world stage.”

The UK Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, is boycotting the tournament, but his Labour colleague Drakeford said: “There is a difference in the responsibility of someone who is the first minster of a nation who has made it to the World Cup final. That is a different set of responsibilities to those exercised by the leader of the opposition.”

Asked about the British foreign secretary James Cleverly’s comments that LGBTQ+ football fans in Qatar should “respect the law” of the host country, Drakeford said: “People should make the decision they themselves are most comfortable with. For many people, that is a decision not to come at all. Where people do choose to come, they will have thought about that carefully. Once people are here, the focus on the football itself – you feel that in the air.”

Drakeford said he had spoken to the International Trade Union Confederation about workers’ rights before he travelled. “They are very clear they feel significant change has been secured as the result of their work and the attention of the world on Qatar. The point they made to me was that if we are not willing to offer some recognition of when progress does happen, however we might wish that progress to go faster, further progress are eroded rather than enhanced.”

The Welsh first minister was one of the first world leaders to comment on the Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s claim that critics of Qatar’s human rights record were guilty of staggering hypocrisy and racism.

Drakeford said: “I think there is a serious point about being prepared to review our own history … to take a moment to reflect on our own histories, it’s not a moment wasted.”

But he added: “The second thought I had was to remind me of Healy’s first law of holes. Some people will remember Denis Healey, the great Labour politician. And his first law of holes was when you’re in one, stop digging.”

The Welsh national team have qualified for their first World Cup finals since 1958. Drakeford, who posed for pictures in front of a giant bucket hat in Welsh colours, said: “It is genuinely striking to see the Welsh flag flying in so many locations. Small nations I think do bring something very special to the World Cup. Countries who appear less frequently, I think, bring extra spice, extra life.”

Asked whether Wales could do well in the competition, he said: “Dare to dream. The great thing about sport is that on any one day any team can beat any other. If it’s your day and the luck runs with you, any side can beat any other. We want Wales do well this week and go deeper into the tournament. The team, I am sure, is daring to dream.”

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