UK Government has been spineless in defence of gay football fans
From the moment that Sepp Blatter, former president of FIFA, pulled Qatar’s name from an envelope announcing it as the host of this year’s World Cup there have been so many concerns. There have been questions about workers’ rights, how the traditional summertime event could be played in the sweltering Arabian heat, and the fan experience, especially for gay football fans.
Some of those questions have been answered. The tournament was moved to the winter, and workers’ rights were an afterthought, quite frankly. The latter concerns best summed up recently by reports that the remaining workers on tournament infrastructure had two hours to pack their things and leave their accommodation in Doha to make way for the imminent arrival of football fans. The question of how welcome gay fans’ might be in a country where homosexuality is banned still lingers. Can they go? If so, can they truly be themselves?
If you take the tournament organiser Nasser Al Khater’s word, all are welcome at the tournament. But the UK foreign secretary’s comments imploring LGBT fans to show “a little bit of flex and compromise” for Qatar 2022 say something quite different. James Cleverly pointed to Qatar being “an Islamic country with a very different set of cultural norms”, and he’s right. I visited family in the Middle East last month, and there is a clear difference in cultural norms. But this is football, a celebration of different cultures coming together to compete in the most loved sport in the world. And international football, particularly the World Cup, is a great vehicle for that.
The facts are the facts. It is a crime to be homosexual in Qatar. The maximum prison sentence for engaging in intimate same-sex relations is seven years, and Muslims could face the death penalty, although there is no evidence anyone has been sentenced to death in Qatar for this. How could any gay person be comfortable going to this tournament knowing this? And Cleverly’s comments have done nothing but dissuade the LGBT community further from attending the tournament.
Football should be bigger than any country. It is a vehicle for change. It has stopped wars, created national unity, and given children role models. There is so much positivity around football, particularly on the international stage.
I don’t want to see a return to the version of football I grew up playing and watching. When I first started going to games in the early-2000’s homophobic slurs were hurled at players and opposition fans frequently, and it was commonplace to hear it on the pitch when I played as a teenager, not just from players, but from some coaches and parents too.
But let me be clear, homophobia has not been stamped out of football entirely, I still hear it occasionally from the stands, but there have been some major inroads made in the last ten years. October 2021 was a seminal moment: Australian footballer Josh Cavallo, became the first player from a top-flight league to come out as openly gay. Following Cavallo’s announcement, 17-year-old Zack Daniels came out publicly in May, becoming the UK’s first openly gay footballer since Justin Fashanu in 1990. In June, two Scottish referees, Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson, made their announcement, and then in September, Zander Murray of Gala Fairydean Rovers became the first senior Scottish player to be openly gay.
It seems that in the footballing environment, it is becoming easier to be gay, but Cleverly’s comments asking people to step back into the closet are spineless and tone-deaf. They never should have been uttered.