The ‘Beautiful Game’ Turns Ugly: The Qatar World Cup Represents a Microcosm of Problems in Modern Football

By Rhiannon Woolford, Deputy Editor in Chief. Photo by Ben Koorengevel on Unsplash

Warning: This article contains discussions of sexuality and gender based discrimination (including homophobia, transphobia and misogyny) and sexual violence, please read with caution

“In a hypocritical move, the media has been quick to scorn Qatar yet rarely offers critical analysis into the issues of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in football at home: allowing the West to retain its neo-colonial image as the home of modernity, freedom and progression”

The 2022 World Cup has gotten underway with an atmosphere unlike any tournament which has come before it. While this sentence would usually indicate an electric atmosphere and unrivaled enthusiasm, this time things are different: for many, the appalling human rights record of the host nation, Qatar, is the only thing on their minds. Qatar unapologetically violates the human rights of many of its citizens including through repression of freedom of expression, repression of freedom of the press, a lack of freedom of association, unfair trials and both gender and sexuality based discrimination. In addition to this, an estimated 6500 migrant workers have died constructing the vast infrastructure needed to host such an event in a country lacking a large footballing culture. The abuses the Qatari people face at the hands of their government is truly shocking and abhorrent, however many of the issues can be analyzed as a microcosm of the problems in modern football at large. Would many of the groups facing persecution under Qatari laws feel significantly safer at a football match in the West?

Those in the LGBTQ+ community face unthinkably cruel treatment in Qatar, with Human Rights Watch documenting instances of repeated beatings, sexual harassment, arbitrary arrest, denial of legal counsel and forced conversion therapy as recently as September 2022. In the UK, to be part of the LGBTQ+ community is no longer criminalised: The Human Rights Act and Gender Recognition Act, while not perfect, paved the way to ensure equality for citizens regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, while the community is protected by law in the UK, the lack of genuine allyship and action from the FA, the English and Welsh national teams, British Politicians and football fans lets down LGBTQ+ fans. In the year leading up to the 2022 World Cup, the Qatari government spent £250,000 lobbying British politicians, more than any other country in the same period. Resultantly, MP’s have stayed quiet on the human rights record of the host nation, in a recent House of Commons debate regarding the tournament just one MP spoke out to defend the LGBTQ+ community and question Qatar’s disregard for human rights. Furthermore, attempts by the Labour Party to show support for the community were quashed when Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford broke the party’s blanket ban on MP’s traveling to attend the tournament. And perhaps most notably, the English captain Harry Kane missed the opportunity to generate a watershed moment in football for LGBTQ+ fans when he backed out of wearing the OneLove armband during matches. The English national team has proven to their LGBTQ+ fans that getting booked matters more to them than defending the fundamental human rights of supporters: a move that hardly reassures LGBTQ+ fans that are genuinely safe and supported at home games. 

While in 2012 all English Premier league clubs signed up to the government’s initiative to tackle homophobia and transphobia in sport, discrimination is still perverse in the ‘beautiful game.’ Only one professional footballer, Jake Daniels, is openley gay in British professional football, a statistic representative of the fact that male British football is not an entirely inclusive. Furthermore, investigations have been opened by the CPS as recently as January 2022 regarding homophobic chanting in the stands. While LGBTQ+ fans may be legally protected in the UK, these instances of discrimination coupled with a lack of solidarity surrounding Qatar 2022 sadly resemble the fact that the community cannot be considered entirely safe at games hosted in the UK.

Furthermore, Qatar’s record gender based discrimination is also horrifying. The system of male guardianship invades almost all aspects of women’s lives there, from receiving education and healthcare, making decisions on marriage, career choices and travel. Women are not even entitled to be the primary guardians of their own children, with the state stepping into this role in cases where no male relative is present. As Qatar is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), these human rights abuses are a clear contravention of international law. Once again, the silence on this gender based discrimination is resoundingly loud. While women have been embraced into UK football much more openly in recent decades, with the England women’s squad winning their first major international tournament this year, gender based violence is still rife. Football has a systemic problem with violence against women, proven by the significant increase in calls to domestic abuse helplines when England lose, reports that 20% of women attending mens football matches receive unwanted physical advances and 25% witnessing sexist chants. And it’s not only the fans who have an issue with violence towards women, several high profile professional footballers have hit the headlines for their own contraventions of the law. Manchester United player Mason Greenwood was arrested on suspicion of attempted rape and assault and is due to face trial next year, Sunderland midfielder Adam Johnson served a prison sentence for statutory rape of a 15 year old girl in 2016, and Pep Guardiola, Manchester City manager, recently described rape accused Benjamin Mendy as a ‘really good boy.’ The complicit nature of British football in gender based violence, by both fans and players, perhaps illustrates the reasons for its silence on the violations of Qatari women’s human rights.

While these instances of discrimination are not as violent as the human rights violations in Qatar, they demonstrate that football culture in the UK is not as morally pure as the headlines would lead us to believe. Even though the media has criticized Qatar where the football world and politicians have not, there is a serious need for internal reflection on the treatment of LGBTQ+ and female fans in the West. In a hypocritical move, the media has been quick to scorn Qatar yet rarely offers critical analysis into the issues of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in football at home: allowing the West to retain its neo-colonial image as the home of modernity, freedom and progression. The controversies surrounding the tournament in Qatar are thus a microcosm of modern footballs negligence to seriously address their problem with gender and sexuality based discrimination. Football’s elite have failed to prove to their fans that they are committed to genuine allyship through their continued ignorance to the issues in Qatar, instead clearly choosing to follow FIFA’s advice to ‘focus on the football.’ Yet, anyone without a privileged positionality is able to recognise that the political is present in all spheres, the football is the political and the political is the personal.

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