On December 2, 2010, former FIFA President Sepp Blatter revealed that Qatar would be the host nation for the men’s World Cup in 2022. Alice Linehan reports on how that decision has affected queer players and fans of football.
The FIFA decision in 2010 was a historic one. Never before had an Arab state been awarded rights to the tournament. Though Qatari officials celebrated the win, eyebrows were raised surrounding the legitimacy of the result, and in the 12 years that followed, controversies have continued to emerge.
On top of allegations of corruption and bribery, as the competition crept closer, it appeared that one of Qatar’s World Cup goals was ‘sportswashing’ - a term coined to describe the practice of using sports to improve tarnished reputations. In this case, what the nation hoped to distract from was its devastating record of human rights abuses, mainly against women, migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people.
In terms of the latter and in stark contrast to other nations, Qatar has made little to no progress in recent decades regarding its treatment of the queer community. Homosexuality remains criminalised in the country, punishable by fines, imprisonment and even death under Sharia law. This is something that has been increasingly spotlighted, and a huge cause of concern for LGBTQ+ football fans, activists and their allies.
Although tournament officials insisted that they were “committed to delivering an inclusive FIFA World Cup experience that is welcoming, safe and accessible to all,” conflicting reports surfaced both in the lead-up to the event and following its kick-off on November 20. From the confiscation of supporters’ rainbow-coloured items, to sanctioning players for wearing anti-discrimination OneLove armbands, the desert climate was perhaps the only warmth that LGBTQ+ people experienced.
Even if it had been different, the reality is that local queers would remain vulnerable far past the tournament’s conclusion. And so, the question remains: by allowing a nation such as Qatar to host one of the largest sporting events in the world, what message is FIFA sending?
Offering answers to the above are representatives from three of Ireland’s LGBTQ+ inclusive football clubs. “I think firstly, it shows the greed of FIFA,” said John Lynch, captain of Belfast Blaze FC. “It should never have gone out there, we all know it. You don’t need to be a footballer to understand that this was the wrong decision.”
Captain of Dublin Devils FC, Adam Kane, felt that it was sending queer male footballers “back into the dark”.
“We hear the FIFA President [Gianni] Infantino and Qatari representatives from the World Cup come out and say, ‘everybody’s welcome, everyone’s going to be fine, anyone can come here,’ and then in the same breath, in the same sentence, you’re told to respect their culture or respect certain parts of the Qatari culture. Which is fair, but at the same time, when it comes to human rights like LGBTQ+ people’s very existence… We should be entitled to voice our opinions on that.”
Kelsey Doyle of the Phoenix Tigers added: “If you’re a gay player, you’d feel very threatened, you wouldn’t feel safe. It would make them in the long run feel like that’s the way the men’s game is and there’s a potential that, down the line, if you want to play for your country, it could happen again.”
Someone with a unique perspective on what it’s like to experience the moral conflict of being an LGBTQ+ footballer and travelling to compete in a country that does not respect your rights is Seana Cooke. In 2013, the former Republic of Ireland player went to the World Student Games in Russia and admitted to finding it “very difficult”.
“I was openly gay, and I was like ‘what am I doing?’” she explained. “It was a fantastic experience, but I do have a tinge of regret… I’m not in a position where I’m like ‘Ah, I wish I hadn’t have gone’, it’s more like why did I not do something even if it was something small.”
Having said that, Seana also acknowledged that this was nearly 10 years ago, at a time before even Ireland had achieved marriage equality, and it was much more challenging to take a public stance. However, she feels that with recent progress, professional players have a duty to protect and advocate for worthy causes.
“I do think footballers, especially with the position that they hold in society - we almost see them as superheroes - they have that responsibility to not just do right for themselves but also the young people and fans that watch them and pay to watch them week in, week out.
“I know it can be very difficult for players, but I do think you have to remind yourself that there’s no piece of metal or tin that’s greater than human rights and these are massive issues that transcend beyond football.”
The argument of separating sports and politics is continuously introduced in debates on the issue, but Cooke expressed: “It’s highly political - the whole concept of playing a tournament in Qatar and agreeing to go. So, you can’t hide behind football and say, ‘I’m just here to play.’”
Cooke continued: “It shouldn’t be a case of opting-in. It’s not à la carte, it’s not something you just choose off the menu when it suits your agenda, or you can use it to boost your profile. There are people living in fear and risking their lives every day just to be who they want to be or who they are.”
Various World Cup nations had planned ways to show their support for vulnerable communities in Qatar, but the majority of the initiatives were abandoned because of FIFA’s response. Captains of seven European countries, namely Belgium, Denmark, England, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Wales, backtracked on their decision to wear OneLove armbands at the tournament after the governing body threatened to issue yellow cards for breaches to kit regulations.
While wearing the accessory would have been a small gesture, the u-turn appeared far more significant as it showed that players and associations valued the competition more than supporting victimised groups.
Doyle of the Phoenix Tigers weighed in on the issue: “I think if they still had taken that stand it would have made a big statement to say ‘I don’t care if you take me off the field’... It’s the only way to get the message across.”
Dublin Devil’s Kane echoed this: “There was no Plan B to it, it was a bit disappointing. It was a very small gesture, and it would have been nice to see… The fact that they abandoned something so small shows you how they feel towards our community.”
In reference to the decision made by tournament organisers to prevent the armbands, Kane accused them of “moving the goalposts”. He felt that “any guarantee or reassurances that FIFA or Qatar had given” were simply thrown out at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, the LGBTQ+ community has felt let down by the sport. But resilient as ever, there is a will to find a positive outcome.
Representatives from the three aforementioned Irish clubs outlined the importance of maintaining the dialogue that exists on the back of the tournament and improving education in order to advance queer representation and support in men’s football. Additionally, it is essential to examine how sport can be used to advocate for vulnerable minorities living in countries where they face prosecution, rather than cover up those issues.
“We are in a position now in Ireland where our rights are protected, and we have a good quality of life in the grand scheme of things as members of the LGBT community,” Cooke explained. “But there’s people just like us living in Qatar and other parts of the world who don’t and it’s important that we continue the conversation and hope that, through conversation, we can affect change.”
Due to the protests against the World Cup, FIFA has announced that human rights due diligence will be a key focus of all forthcoming tournaments. While promises like these are easy to make, the association has introduced a requirement for all future host countries and cities to, among other things, commit to their obligations under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and develop respective strategies.
This is a step towards ensuring that the events of Qatar 2022 are never repeated. However, more must be done, and no group is more equipped to help tackle these issues than the global queer community.