In the two days of the tournament so far, Fifa has shown itself to be utterly uninterested in LGBTQ+ inclusion.
In Monday’s match against Iran, England’s Harry Kane wore an armband reading “no discrimination”, in black and white – which despite its stated message, meant more cold-shoulder treatment for lesbian, gay, bi and trans people at this World Cup.
When it was announced back in September that eight competing nations would support the One Love campaign, with multicoloured hearts appearing on captains’ sleeves, the power of the gesture lay in allyship. “Wearing the armband together on behalf of our teams will send a clear message when the world is watching,” said Kane.
The six colours being used for One Love aren’t those of the Pride rainbow, but that made sense in the context of Qatar. After all, the criminalization of same-sex love is not the only human rights issue in the host nation.
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But even then, One Love never did feel alright – and its weaknesses were ultimately exposed by FIFA’s bullying tactics and England’s risk-averse response.
Cracks in the coalition started to appear when the France skipper, Hugo Lloris, said last week that “respect” for Qatar’s rules and culture meant he was unlikely to wear the armband.
He also suggested he was waiting for the final call from Fifa, which then stopped the remaining seven teams with the threat of sanctioning their skippers if they wore the campaign apparel.
Kane ended up wearing an armband approved by world football’s governing body instead. Meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk, the Netherlands captain, sported a different design – but again, FIFA-approved and anodyne – when his team played Senegal on Monday afternoon.
I run a network called Sports Media LGBT+ for those working in sports media who are LGBTQ+ (we have more than 50 in our core group) and the ping of WhatsApp messages on Monday morning was testament to the way hearts were sinking.
We are collectively exasperated at our community being seen as political. Fifa’s own statutes include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination, equality and neutrality clause, but it appears visibility and a reference to love is still a stretch too far. It’s why Sports Media LGBT+ is among the supporters of the No Pride Without All campaign launched by Three Lions Pride, the Rainbow Wall and Pride in Football.
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Members of these LGBTQ+ fan groups have not travelled to Qatar – they did not receive adequate reassurances of security for fans, while they also wanted to show solidarity with their queer Qatari siblings.
They feel similarly deflated by the overruling of One Love. Their statement reads: “Fifa are guilty of crushing the basic human rights to freedom of speech and of expression that every single one of us should have without question.”
Kane could, of course, have worn the One Love armband anyway, and taken the booking or whatever punishment Fifa intended to dish out – but, amid so much uncertainty just hours before kickoff, the FA erred on the side of caution.
The players and staff of the national teams involved were put in a near impossible position. Ultimately, Fifa’s failings during the whole affair – exemplified by the insensitive manner in which its president, Gianni Infantino, referenced diversity in his address to the media on the eve of the tournament – has undermined the very values it professes to share, and that are written into the non-discrimination clause of its statutes.
Fifa seems to believe that by mandating usage of its own armbands, it is showing leadership. But with seven out of eight groups at this World Cup containing nations where homosexuality is still illegal, there simply isn’t a shared commitment on LGBTQ+ inclusion.
The visibility of One Love might have at least started a specific conversation, and perhaps we shall discover that Fifa’s actions have made it even more of a talking point.
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The only person seen wearing the armband at England v Iran was, commendably, the BBC pundit Alex Scott, who has recently written in her autobiography about her previous relationship with her former teammate Kelly Smith.
She was representing LGBTQ+ people from the sidelines. It’s where our community will no doubt continue to find itself during this men’s World Cup.