The World Cup 2019 was a brilliant year for football – a beautiful celebration of diversity, LGBT+ players, calls for equal pay, families cheering together in solidarity in the stands. I’m talking about the women’s game, of course, men’s football has a long way to go.
Next weekend I’m taking my young son to his first Premier League match. I’ve been a sports fan all my life, and 2022, ahead of the Fifa men’s World Cup, is the year I want to introduce him to the beautiful game.
My partner – who dislikes most sport – asks me if there will be hooligans (my team is West Ham – and she has seen Green Street). Thankfully, those days are mostly over. What I’m more concerned about is introducing my son to a world in which his family will always be on the outside. It wouldn’t be safe for us to attend the World Cup in Qatar together, due to the nation’s stance on LGBT+ rights. There has been little done to change this and I can’t help but feel there is general indifference around the issue in the men’s game as a whole.
“Offenders” according to Qatar law face everything from flogging to long prison sentences and even execution. Fifa’s code of ethics bans discrimination based on sexual orientation – but here we are with a World Cup in the second-most dangerous country for gay travellers.
In 2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council for the Arab States even proposed banning gay players and fans from attending the World Cup altogether. The council suggested tourists would have to complete a “homosexuality test” – those who failed the “test” would have their visas revoked. There is, of course, no such medical test in existence and thankfully pressure from the global community made Qatar U-turn on the idea. But you can still get locked up or killed for being in a same-sex relationship in the country.
The world’s only openly gay professional men’s footballer, Josh Cavallo, who plays for Adelaide United, has said he would be “scared” to play in Qatar. It’s unsurprising there is only one openly gay first-tier male football player in the whole world when football’s governing bodies allow major tournaments to be held in such places.
Before Christmas, Olympic diver Tom Daley said his “one Christmas wish” would be for professional male football players to speak about their sexuality openly and urged the sport to change, stating that it could “save the lives of countless young people who don’t currently feel like they have a place in this world”. On average, globally, 7 per cent of people identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, according to Ipsos research.
“Statistically there are enough [gay] players for three football teams running out onto that pitch every week. At least one gay man at every single club in the Premier League, living a lie,” said Daley. “Why are we allowing places that aren’t safe for all fans and all players to host our most prestigious sporting events?”
This could be the year English football actually does “come home”, but if it did, celebrating “Qatar 2022” for years to come would be wrong under the circumstances. At the very least our broadcasters and official sporting bodies must pressure Qatar to suspend its anti-LGBT+ laws before the 2022 Fifa World Cup, so all fans can attend the games without fear of persecution.
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Last year proved that men’s football can be a force for good. The Three Lions took the knee on the world stage in their most successful European Championship to date. Marcus Rashford fought against food poverty at home. Jordan Henderson praised brave non-binary football fans online, stating that “Football is for everyone, no matter what”.
Of course, it’s not always plain sailing. After Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford missed penalties in the shootout that won Italy the tournament, racist abuse directed at the three black players cast a shadow on the England team’s achievements. Discrimination exists. But our response to discrimination matters; the nation recognised this abhorrent behaviour and attempted to stamp it out. Everyone from Boris Johnson to the Football Association condemned the racism, and several people were arrested for online racist abuse.
We need the same momentum going into this year’s World Cup in Qatar when it comes to homophobia. We need to recognise what’s right and wrong in football in 2022, because to ignore it would be to legitimise Qatar’s blatant human rights abuses.