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‘Heartbreaking’ Qatar World Cup has shown ‘football’s true colours’, LGBTQ+ fans say. So what next?

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A photo of a pitch invader wearing a shirt reading "Save Ukraine" as he holds a rainbow flag during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

The Argentina v France World Cup final will mark an end to what has been a bitter, demoralising tournament.

Gay, retired footballer Thomas Beattie has said the various controversies surrounding the World Cup – from the OneLove armband fiasco to resistance to pro-LGBTQ+ symbols – have proven that football isn’t for everyone.

That’s a message LGBTQ+ football fans will have internalised, and it’s one they’ll be dealing with long after the tournament ends.

As the tournament finally draws to a close, questions are emerging about what its ultimate impact will be. Will it make things better or worse for LGBTQ+ footballers and fans, and will the many controversies advance the discourse in any way, even if it hasn’t led to any meaningful change for LGBTQ+ people in Qatar? 

“At least a light has been shed on our issues, on our fundamental human rights. We’re part of the conversation in a way that I can’t remember in football,” Jack Duncan, an LGBTQ+ rights activist and ardent football fan, tells PinkNews.

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A protester holds a placard which states 'Qatar arrests, jails and subjects LGBTs to conversion' during a demonstration.
A protester holds a placard which states ‘Qatar arrests, jails and subjects LGBTs to conversion’ during a demonstration. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty)

For him, the World Cup was ultimately worse than he could ever have imagined – but he is hopeful it could prove to be a “watershed moment”.

“It might not be in the most positive way, but frankly we’ve been ignored up until this point including at the last World Cup, which was also hosted in a country [Russia] not known for positivity to [LGBTQ+ people]. We weren’t even mentioned, so I guess you could call that a step in the right direction.”

However, Duncan also points out that celebrating such a small victory shows just how low the bar was for LGBTQ+ football fans to begin with.

He was disappointed when England, Wales and several other countries backed away from wearing the OneLove armband – designed to stand against discrimination in football – after they were reportedly threatened with yellow cards.

“If you ask me the gesture of wearing an armband was already pretty basic and not going far enough, but they somehow managed to pull out of that which, to be honest, was heartbreaking, and it really hardened my resolve personally. For the first time in my life, I haven’t watched a single minute [of the World Cup].”

Two men kiss next to a goal during a symbolic action by LGBT+ associations in front of the FIFA museum in Zurich on November 8, 2022.
Two men kiss during a symbolic action by LGBTQ+ associations in front of Zurich’s FIFA museum. (AFP via Getty/FABRICE COFFRINI)

“I think the only thing we know for certain is that the events around this tournament will change the discussion,” Duncan continues. “I do believe it’s a watershed moment but as for how much change it causes for how long and how positive it is, only time will tell.”

Paula Griffin is a trans football fan who also plays on a grassroots women’s team in London. She decided long before the World Cup even started that she would be boycotting it. She was horrified by the country’s treatment of migrant workers, but the censorship of LGBTQ+ issues added insult to injury. 

“My feeling is that it’s shown football’s true colours,” she says.

“In the UK when it comes to actually doing things, we’re very happy to wave the flag and put on a few events now and then, but when it comes to real action they bottle it, for want of a better word.”

A photo of trans woman Paula Griffin in front of a camera after playing a match with her women's football team
Paula Griffin says “things won’t change until there’s a change of leadership in FIFA”. (Supplied)

Men’s football already has a homophobia problem – it’s why the UK currently has just two out gay pros, both of whom have come out in the last year.

Like many others, Griffin is worried the World Cup will make things worse in this respect.

“It’s going to knock things back,” she says.

“If a player wants to come out and he’s coming out in this atmosphere, he’s looking around at these cisgender heterosexual men in football, they’ve said they’re allies and suddenly their true colours are shown. 

“I look at [David] Beckham who will happily take Qatari money. He was a gay icon for years and suddenly he takes their money. Are people really going to support you or is it just that it helps their brand?”

Things won’t change until there’s a change of leadership in FIFA, she says.

“National associations have to say, football is not going to be run by these corrupt administrators in Geneva anymore, it’s going to be run by people who are playing the game. 

“These national associations have to take their power away from FIFA. We have to see sponsors taking their power. Whether that’s going to happen or not I doubt it.”

Jon Holmes, founder of Sports Media LGBT+, says much of the blame for the way the World Cup has played out falls to FIFA. Change must start at the top, he argues.

“I think FIFA has an obvious lack of representation at a senior leadership level,” he says, pointing out that only a small number of people on the FIFA council are women, and there’s “very limited” LGBTQ+ representation too.

“Unless we have LGBT voices helping to guide an organisation like FIFA, that helps them to understand what people in the community experience and the challenges they face, then people will always struggle to address anti-discrimination.”

He expects the women’s World Cup, which is due to take place in 2023 in Australia, will be a very different affair from what we’ve seen in Qatar because there are so many out queer women playing in women’s football. 

“Immediately due to that representation on the pitch, the approach to LGBT inclusion is going to be very different because we’re going to have more strident voices and people talking about the importance of challenging discrimination. 

“We haven’t had that in this tournament and I think FIFA has struggled to bring those voices to the fore.

“Unless FIFA can find a way to synergise these two huge showpiece sporting events, then that’s going to make football feel like a very conflicted sport.”

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