‘Fifa have washed their hands of it’: LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups on the legacy of the 2022 World Cup and their enduring fears for Qatar’s gay fans

What should have been the biggest celebration of football for all was, for LGBTQ+ fans, irrevocably tarnished by the actions of the competition’s organisers and governing bodies, writes Rachel Roberts. 

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Controversy shrouded Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup from the moment the country was awarded the tournament. Whilst the month of football provided captivating drama on the pitch, for LGBTQ+ fans, the fear of treatment from a host nation where homosexuality is criminalised hung over its entire duration. 

As we reflect on the potential legacy of this tournament, it is clear it’s multifaceted — from what it means for the nature of Fifa’s governance over football, to the effectiveness of ‘sportswashing’ and most importantly, the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Qatar, long after the World Cup circus has departed, as LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups and human rights campaigners highlight.

In the weeks before the tournament, the rhetoric sharpened as World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF, while UK foreign secretary James Cleverly asked travelling fans to “flex and compromise” in order to be “respectful of the host nation”.

Paul Amann, Liverpool’s LGBTQ+ Supporters’ Committee representative, criticised both comments – he called Salman’s as “throwback in time” detrimental to people’s mental health, and condemned the government for failing to challenge “a state that wishes to provide harm, if not directly to fans”.

“I absolutely get the need to be respectful to people’s cultures,” Amann stated, “but if that flexing and compromising is to deny one’s identity, to behave in a way that is injurious to your wellbeing, then that’s utter nonsense.”

Several nations including England and Wales had planned on protesting by wearing an armband as part of the OneLove campaign, established by the Dutch FA two years ago to fight against all forms of discrimination. Yet any well-intentioned action was quashed by Fifa, firstly through a directive to “focus on the football”, followed by a last-minute threat of a yellow card to anyone who wore the armband on the pitch.

For Stuart Matthews, co-founder and chair of Brighton and Hove Albion’s LGBTQ+ supporters’ group ‘Proud Seagulls’, the only good thing about the World Cup was the success of Brighton’s players, none more so than Argentina champion Alexis Mac Allister.

Prior to the tournament, Matthews felt Fifa’s directive was “a disappointing bullying tactic”, but was optimistic regarding the effectiveness of such protest: “My personal feeling is that teams are trying to make good of a bad situation… it wouldn’t be highly visible, commentators will pick up on it.”

Of course, this never happened, and post-tournament reflections leave Matthews’ feelings towards football’s governing body unchanged. 

“[The threat of a yellow card] to me was bullying plain and simple. What message does that send to young people around the world? You can be a big institution like Fifa and get away with bullying. This World Cup has shown very clearly that money talks. Fifa have a lot to think about and do in order to repair its already damaged image.”

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Fifa’s external image – and whether they feel internally that it is damaged – is a separate matter. The organisation has demonstrated that they have no regard for mixing their football with politics; Arsene Wenger, now Fifa’s head of global football development, suggested Germany’s group stage exit was influenced by “political demonstrations” that rendered them not “mentally ready” for the competition – a demonstration that was merely the players collectively covering their mouths for their first pre-game photo after the banning of the OneLove armband. 

Football’s governing body has demonstrated it will threaten football associations and players to conform with their messaging – offering alternative armbands promoting unoffensive social messages such as ‘Save the Planet’, but nothing specific enough to directly challenge anyone into action. Consequently, the sincerity of any future championing of social causes is stripped away by their corporate control, hypocritically misleading environmental claims, and a comfort with forcing LGBTQ+ supporters to choose between being a football fan and their personal safety.

When contemplating the legacy of this World Cup, it seems their external image is not something of concern, because the success of a thrilling footballing display is enough for this to be “the best World Cup ever” in the eyes of Fifa president Gianni Infantino. The sportswashing, for them at least, worked perfectly.

But while Fifa were relatively successful in stamping out unsanctioned protests on the pitch, their actions in doing so only highlighted the issue more. From here arises the question of whether this could be a positive legacy, in sparking conversations by bringing attention to the cause – after all, no publicity is bad publicity. However, merely talking about human rights abuses is far from ‘job done’; the real legacy is to be found in any lasting, positive changes made to the lives of Qatar’s LGBTQ+ citizens.

For the Football Supporters’ Association, Fifa’s banning of the OneLove armband was enough to remark what the legacy of the tournament should be: “Never again should a World Cup be handed out solely on the basis of money and infrastructure. No country which falls short on LGBT+ rights, women’s rights, or any other universal human right should be given the honour of hosting a World Cup.”

But for the LGBTQ+ fans and allies that were present in Qatar, their experience of football’s greatest show was irrevocably marred. Before the tournament, neither Amann nor Matthews knew of any LBGTQ+ fans going to the World Cup. Although a report from Uefa’s Working Group in June described ‘assurances’ as to the safety of fans being “welcomed with rainbow flags” whilst “ensuring local culture and customs are respected”, concern for personal safety was highlighted by both as a major reason why. 

“I know a lot of LGBTQ+ fans just don’t feel happy with going to a World Cup in a country where being LGBTQ+ is a crime,’ said Matthews. “I just feel as though the government and Fifa have washed their hands of it.”

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Any scepticism as to whether these assurances would be met was justified after it all kicked off. Multiple reports emerged of fans wearing rainbow bucket hats being forcibly told to remove them upon entry to stadiums, supposedly for their own safety. Although Fifa did later assure fans they would be allowed entry with their rainbow apparel, the fear that came from the monitoring of personal expression demonstrated why so many LGBTQ+ fans could not feel welcome at this football celebration.

Amnesty International UK’s head of priority campaigns and individuals at risk team, Felix Jakens said: “To some extent, a heavy focus on the safety of LGBTQ+ fans in Qatar obscured just how deeply unacceptable it always was that Fifa had granted World Cup hosting rights to Qatar, without requiring it to remove discriminatory laws or to insist on minimum labour standards.”

Reflecting on the legacy of the 2022 World Cup, solidarity for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Qatar is a key message from both supporters’ groups. This year, Dr Nasser Mohamed set up ‘Proud Maroons’ – an LGBTQ+ supporters’ group for Qataris. Speaking to BBC Sport, he explained how he is “leaning into the message that ‘everybody is welcome’ in Qatar, including gay fans, to highlight the gay fans that are not welcome in Qatar and that’s us. The Qatari gay fans.”

The Proud Maroons are the only LGBTQ supports’ group that cannot have fans join from their own country, under the threat of prison. “We want a platform,” added Dr Mohamed, “to continue to bring visibility to what happens to us after this World Cup. The persecutions of the ones that are there [in Qatar] is substantially more significant than fans visiting Qatar. They are the ones that are going to be suffering the long-term consequences.”

Any progress seen in Qatar is how the legacy of the World Cup will be shaped. Amnesty’s Jakens highlighted the “genuinely inspiring” solidarity showed by fans and players with Qatar’s LGBTQ+ community, but emphasised that despite the drama of the football concluding, “fear of arrest among Qatar’s at-risk LGBTQ+ community is very much ongoing.”

“Qatar 2022 won’t really be over until all the country’s discriminatory laws are repealed.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts

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