So here we are, almost two weeks before the World Cup and FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Secretary General Fatma Samoura send their call to arms, landing in the lap of football federations competing in the tournament in Qatar.
The email arrived at around 7pm (UK time) on Thursday night and within three hours it had been leaked and found its way onto the Sky News website.
“Please, let’s focus on the football now!” Infantino and Samoura pleaded.
The pair continued: “We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and problems of a political nature around the world.
“But please don’t allow football to be drawn into every ideological or political struggle that exists.”
So the message was clear. Heads down, know your place, keep quiet and stick to the footy.
For those unfortunate enough to follow Infantino for a living, the newfound limitations of soccer’s transformative power may come as a surprise.
It’s a contrast, for example, to a moment earlier this year of what can only be described as Peak Infantino. The stage was Davos, the Swiss alpine resort, and the World Economic Forum in May. To the uninitiated, Davos is the kind of self-important hellscape made for Infantino, where the world’s richest and most privileged ruminate on their own potential to cleanse the world of any and all evils.
The FIFA website followed up Infantino’s appearance with a report titled “FIFA President: Football can change the world.”
Infantino said: “(Nelson) Mandela said that sport can change the world, that it can inspire, that it unites, and he was right about that. Soccer, as the most popular sport in the world, has a unique reach.”
Just over five months later and Infantino’s revolutionary fervor seems to have left him behind. The letter Thursday night did not directly mention any of the most controversial aspects of this year’s World Cup in Qatar, notably the treatment of the migrant workers who built the stadiums, the homophobic laws that threaten the safety of LGBT+ Qataris and visitors, as well as the calls for FIFA to take a stand on Iran, whose drones are supporting Russia in pounding Ukrainian territory, not to mention the current protests going on in the country around women’s rights.
But the letter appeared to strongly suggest that it would be unwise for federations to focus on such topics.
The letter continued: “At FIFA we try to respect all opinions and beliefs without imparting moral lessons to the rest of the world.
“One of the great strengths of the world is indeed its diversity, and if inclusion means anything, it means having respect for that diversity. No people or culture or nation is ‘better’ than any other.
“This principle is the foundation of mutual respect and non-discrimination. And this is also one of the core values of football. So, let’s all remember that please and let football take center stage.”
It might be helpful at this point to remind Infantino just how the world works. When he pleads that football should not be dragged into “every ideological” battle, perhaps he needs to be told that homosexuality is not an ideology. This is the way one is born; it is within us, it is who we are, it is who I am. If we accept a person’s sexuality as inherent, that it is a matter of nature rather than nurture, then we also recognize that it is patently irrational to criticize or criminalize a person for their sexuality.
However, Infantino’s words seem to argue that the “inclusion” of respecting homosexuality is of equal value to the “inclusion” of respecting the criminalization of homosexuality.
This argument seems to be that true tolerance means being tolerant of violent and harmful intolerance. This means that the worldview of two loving women, married and raising children together, is of equal value to that of, say, Salah Al-Yafei. This man describes himself as an “educational consultant” at Qatar’s Aspire Academy, which houses Qatar’s most talented young sports stars. He has 60,000 Instagram followers and one recent video said: “Faced with open promotion of homosexuality, disapproval in your expression and attitude has a huge impact on children as it conveys the message to them that this is something that is deviant is and we must accept it.” This is the life of shame inflicted on gay people in Qatar, where the homophobic rhetoric treats a person’s natural state as an ailment to be suppressed at best or, at worst, cured.
Two weeks out from the tournament, Infantino’s words have struck a chord with those who believe broadcasters, media, federations and journalists should be free to scrutinize the hosts of the world’s most popular sporting tournament. As such, it’s not only deplorable content, but also stunningly stupid as a strategy, alienating those who might want to keep FIFA on the sidelines in the next few weeks.
Yet the reality is that Qatari enablers, so keen to protect their relationships, often do the state more harm than good. Take, for example, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who recently told a radio station that British LGBT+ people traveling to Doha must “bend and compromise” if they visit during the World Cup. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Cleverly’s soft-spoken apology is the result of British business interests being closely tied up in Qatar, be it the £1.5 billion ($1.7 billion) of British contracts that linked to the tournament, or the British RAF aircraft. protecting the skies, or the £6 billion worth of Typhoon jets that Britain has sold to Qatar in recent years. In that context, the fate of LGBT+ people in Qatar seems to be an afterthought.
And the truth is that it remains a footnote to the sport itself. For example, we must remember that when Qatar won this competition in 2010, the Premier League was still several years away from its annual Rainbow Laces campaign, which was only launched after the competition was dragged kicking and screaming into it by a publicity stunt. from bookmakers Paddy Power. In recent years, as the World Cup has approached, the vast majority of national federations have done next to nothing to raise concerns about the situation for LGBT+ Qataris and traveling fans. For example, the FA signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2018 with both the Qatar FA and the Orwellian Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. The then chairman Greg Clarke announced these ties while posing in front of the English FA’s “Football”. For All” logo – after no consultation with English LGBT+ football supporters. These memoranda remain intact to this day.
Since then, the Qatari authorities have offered very little on the record over the years to reassure LGBT+ citizens or visitors. They often say vague phrases like “everyone is welcome” but always remember the message with an insistence that visitors must respect Qatari culture, leaving people like me, traveling to the tournament, unsure of the state’s meaningful position on key issues . What would happen, for example, should I write about LGBT+ issues while on the ground in Doha during the coming month? In the absence of Qatari clarity, we are in the absurd position where football managers from the English FA are speaking for another state’s law enforcement agency.
As such, we heard from Mark Bullingham, the chief executive of the English FA, who broke the news at the end of September that LGBT+ couples holding hands in Qatar would not be prosecuted. “They absolutely gave us all the right answers for anything we talked about,” Bullingham said, appearing to praise the tournament’s hosts.
Stepping back from the surrealism of this tournament, isn’t it utterly baffling that a football organization is telling us how a country intends to enforce its penal code when that country is so reluctant to set such matters for themselves? Then we have the absurdity of this reassurance landing in September, eight weeks before the tournament, as if England’s gays have been waiting 12 years since Qatar’s winning bid for a polite FA nod to then start saving for tickets two months before and for the World Cup kicks off.
And if Bullingham is so confident of the hosts’ welcome, why does England’s (and other European nations’) proposed statement in support of LGBT+ people at the tournament consist only of a bracelet with a “One Love” slogan? It shows a color design that does not appear to be the rainbow commonly recognized as a symbol of the LGBT+ community. If the hosts are so generous, so inclusive and so open to dialogue, why doesn’t it state “gay rights” or mention Qatar’s anti-homosexuality laws? Why won’t these federations of freedom fighters clearly recognize the people they claim to stand up for?
Perhaps an answer to the reluctance came Thursday in the I newspaper, where a gay man in Qatar revealed that he was lured to a hotel room via a dating app and found Qatari officials waiting to turn him in. to fall upon his arrival. They raped him, the report said, before arresting him.
Anyway, as Gianni says, back to the football everyone.
(Top photo: Stephen McCarthy – FIFA / FIFA via Getty Images)