Growing up in North Shields, just outside Newcastle, football was nothing short of a religion. Whenever we got the chance, my dad and I would make the pilgrimage into town to St James’ Park – nicknamed the ‘cathedral on the hill’ – to watch our beloved Newcastle United.
It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for me: I’ll still obsessively watch any match I can, read articles analysing the game and talk about it constantly with friends. As I’ve grown older though, I’ve struggled to reconcile my love for football with my identity as a bisexual man. For me, football has always felt inextricably tied up with traditional conceptions of masculinity to the point that it can seem unwelcoming to outsiders. Playing for local youth teams as a child, I’d get called a ‘poof’ or ‘sissy’ if I didn’t go in for a risky tackle or jump for a header. This language was so deeply ingrained in the culture of the sport that it didn’t initially register as homophobic; at the time, they just seemed like generic insults to me.
Luckily, attitudes have improved somewhat in the UK in the intervening years. For instance, all 20 Premier League clubs now take part in Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, demonstrating their support for the LGBTQ+ community, and slowly but surely more professional players are feeling comfortable enough to open up about their sexuality. Of course, the situation is still far from perfect, but there are signs that considerable progress is being made.
The fact that the World Cup will be played in Qatar feels like a kick in the teeth. Qatar is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for LGBTQ+ people, with consensual sexual activity between two adults of the same gender carrying a sentence of three years’ imprisonment, and a maximum penalty of death by stoning. In 2010, when concerns were first raised about Qatar’s suitability to hold the tournament, FIFA delegates suggested that steps would be taken to enact legislative change before the tournament to make it a more welcoming place for all. Over a decade later, these changes have failed to materialise. As recently as this year, LGBTQ+ Qataris have reportedly been subject to physical, verbal, and sexual abuse by Qatari officials.
Tournament organisers have tried to stress that, at least during the tournament, restrictions will be relaxed somewhat, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino stating that ‘regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality,’ the World Cup would be welcoming for all. Digging deeper, however, reveals an alarming reality.
In April, the Independent reported that officials would have the authority to confiscate LGBTQ+ symbols (Pride flags, for instance), ostensibly because they were concerned about the possibility of clashes between international supporters and Qatari people. Similarly, a number of hotels – despite being recommended in FIFA’s official guide to the tournament – have stated that they will not provide rooms to same-sex couples. In light of these issues (and indeed a few others), FIFA’s promise of a diverse and welcoming tournament begins to feel empty.
In September, it was announced that England captain Harry Kane, along with several other European players, would wear an armband in support of the pro-LGBTQ+ One Love campaign during the tournament – regardless of whether doing so would incur a fine. While it would be nice to see this as a powerful statement of protest in solidarity with those impacted by the homophobia of the Qatari state, it’s difficult not to be cynical. Simply by appearing at the tournament, Kane will still be helping to fill stadiums and therefore boost the economy of the Qatari regime. A far more effective and powerful form of protest would, of course, be to refuse to play. However, doing so would involve forfeiting the financial and reputational benefits of playing in a World Cup – something that, sadly, was never likely to happen.
Similarly, Hummel (the manufacturer of Denmark’s kit for the tournament) recently announced that their branding would not be as prominent as usual, as they “don’t wish to be visible” during the tournament given the circumstances in which it is being held. Again, on the surface, this is a powerful statement of protest. Yet, this move almost certainly ensures that the Denmark shirts will become collector’s items for years to come. It is not as if the shirts come cheap either – if you’d like to purchase a replica from Hummel’s website, it’ll set you back an eye-watering £70. It is difficult, therefore, to see this gesture as anything more than a simple marketing stunt disguised as a gesture of genuine goodwill, serving as a grim reminder that corporations – regardless of any apparent compassion – will always value profit above all else.
For these reasons, I can’t help but feel conflicted as the Qatar World Cup kicks off. Of course, there is a part of me that wants to switch my brain off and enjoy the football as I would with any other World Cup. They only come every four years, after all. Deep down though, I know that doing so would be tantamount to ignoring and enabling the appalling circumstances that have led to this point. It isn’t just the LGBTQ+ rights issues. There are enough problems to fill several more articles; the mistreatment of migrant workers in building stadia and other facilities for instance, or the corruption rumours that have plagued the tournament ever since planning began.
It’s sadly too late to fix most of these now, so I can only hope that future organisers learn from the mistakes made in Qatar to build a brighter future for football fans from all backgrounds.
Written by a University of Leicester student wishing to remain anonymous.