Opinion: Squaring the LGBT+ circle of the Qatar World Cup

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Today is Men’s World Cup Final day. It’s an occasion that comes around once every four years and captures the imaginations of football fans around the planet, although once again, we find ourselves only with the memories of 1966 to live on.

Fifty-six (and a half) years ago, our nation won a World Cup with a goal that wouldn’t have counted had there been VAR, with the late Queen Elizabeth II watching on, in a world that was very different to the one we find ourselves in today.

In the lead-up to this World Cup, the conversation was less about football and more about the morality and human rights record of the host country, splitting opinion worldwide.

Borrowing a phrase from my friend and Bedford Independent colleague, Erica from the past couple of weeks: By not sticking your head above the parapet, you can’t be criticised.

We are invisible

I have been a football fan for as long as I can remember.

From throwing myself around on the sofa pretending I was Peter Schmeichel to playing for Bedford Park Rangers among others, football has been a big part of my life and well-being for nearly three decades.

Mini-me, as an 8-year-old for Bedford Park Rangers

All of this changed when I realised I was gay.

In this country, the relationship between football and homosexuality is a chalk-and-cheese existence.

Many still feel unsafe attending stadia with their same-sex partners and homophobia is still rife, although legal equality is now with us in many ways.

However, in Qatar, being openly homosexual can get you killed.

It is this very real and very scary prospect that seems to escape the consciousness of commentators and opinion makers who claim everyone needs to ‘respect the culture’ of the host country.

Away from the hysteria of rainbow armbands and the faux-shredding of money by comedians lies a very real consequence for LGBT+ people in Qatar. Hide yourself entirely or risk incarceration or even execution.

It is this brutal and unnecessary reasoning that leads to the uproar.

Listening to the uproar on behalf of another sector of society can sometimes feel exhausting and overwhelming, and it’s led to this incredibly serious issue being overshadowed as people grow tired of hearing the same response.

I would ask that you remember the stories of the Qatari people who have faced persecution, and solitary confinement and have been forced into mentally-damaging conversion therapy – of which there are many – simply for being who they are.

Where’s the humanity in that?

Making a stand

Throughout the past month, people like myself have faced the moral conundrum that engulfs this tournament. Trying to square the circle around our love of the game and the circumstances that surround it has proven more of a challenge than I thought.

The World Cup has a unique ability to connect cultures, propel personalities into a perpetual limelight and to ignite careers.

It also brings this country together in a way few other events can but I, along with many other LGBT+ football fans, have felt guilty tuning in.

I only realised this when my Dad texted me his amazement at Japan winning a group containing Spain and Germany. I read it, raised my eyebrows and thought, “I completely forgot there were games on.”

Usually, I’d be filling out my wall chart and lamenting the fact I’d spent £5 in the work sweepstake only to pick a rank outsider out of the hat.

This year? I have been filled with a sense of trepidation. Part of me feels that by watching, I am condoning the laws of the country it is taking place in.

It has felt a bit upsetting, although I have been observing.

That may seem futile or superfluous but as someone who knows what exclusion feels like, it is an irrefutable fact of life. We need to stand together, or we do not stand at all.

It’s why I’ve admired the stance taken by venues such as Bedford Esquires, who decided early on they would not endorse this tournament and not show the games.

That’s a difficult thing to do when events like this take over the psyche of the people around you.

Read: Esquires take stance against controversial Qatar World Cup

What about 2026?

Then there’s the hypocrisy argument.

The 2026 edition is due to be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico and will be the first time the World Cup has been spread across three different countries.

The majority of the games are being hosted in the US, a country not without its controversy when it comes to issues such as abortion and gun crime.

Will the Americans field the same ferocious questioning on their culture that Qatar has faced? The accusations are that because the USA is a western country, it will escape the same scrutiny. I for one hope that it doesn’t.

The overriding feeling remains however that with the end of the first-ever Winter World Cup on the horizon, its legacy will be that of sports washing and human rights abuses.

When Geoff Hurst netted his hat-trick in that 1966 World Cup final, the UK was still twelve months away from legalising homosexual relationships for those over 21 years old.

Over half a century later, we are still seeing individuals killed based on who they love in some parts of the world.

However much I love football, or indeed sport, nothing can trump that.

 
 
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