Sunday 18 March 2018

Narrow minds in high places

Eamonn Sweeney

W hat is it with football and homophobia?

From the dispiriting plethora of chants based around homophobic abuse to the statements of Croatian official Vlatko Markovic, "while I'm president of the Croatian Football Federation, there will be no homosexuals in the national team. Luckily, only normal people play football." And Juventus managing director Luciano Moggi, "A homosexual cannot do the job of a footballer. The football world is not designed for them, it's a special atmosphere, one in which you stand naked under the showers," you'd be excused for thinking that this particular prejudice is an essential part of the game's culture.

And also for thinking that Luciano Moggi believes gays melt on contact with water.

Lately, however, there have been challenges to the game's troglodytes, most notably from the Justin Campaign, named after Justin Fashanu, the former Norwich City striker who was the first, and so far only, high-profile footballer to come out as gay, a decision which effectively ended his career at the top level. Fashanu went on to commit suicide at the age of 37. These campaigns may have led to the English FA's decision to bring out a television advertisement this year aimed at football's homophobes.

Yet even this minor decision was a tentative one. The FA spent two years humming and hawing about whether to bring out the ad, the launch was postponed and they were unable to find any high-profile player to speak out against homophobia. Still, given the lamentable attitude on the part of the football authorities towards the problem, this was progress of a sort.

There may be people out there who would argue that this isn't a particularly important issue. Perhaps there are no gay footballers and that's why none have come out since Fashanu. Perhaps gay men and women just don't like football and aren't at matches to be offended by the chants. The problem with these arguments is that they are, to use a technical term, bollocks.

I'm sure there were misguided souls who before Donal óg Cusack came out would have argued that there are no gay hurlers and who would have said the same thing about rugby before Gareth Thomas, inspired by Cusack's courage, also declared his homosexuality. And the many letters I got, in the wake of the Cork goalkeeper's decision, from gay GAA followers were extraordinary, not just for their passion and candour but for the sense of pride and liberation which came across. By coming out, Cusack had definitively put the kibosh on the idea that Gaelic games was a straights-only pursuit.

It is an enormous credit to the GAA and its fans that Cusack met with very little open homophobia from the terraces after declaring his sexuality. The sky did not fall down, he played on and, if anything, probably won some new fans by his gesture. It would have been unthinkable for any GAA official to make a comment like those of Messrs Markovic and Moggi.

Yet would a Premier League footballer who made the same decision be treated with the same kind of respect and understanding from the fans? Up to last week, I wasn't sure. But now FIFA have taken a decision which showed that, as far as the world's governing body is concerned, professional football is cool with homophobia.

It did this by awarding the World Cup to Qatar, a country where homosexuality is not just illegal, but punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years with whipping also an option. The mind boggles. It really does. The World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world yet FIFA have said it's okay with them if the sizeable minority of the population who are homosexual are effectively excluded from the event. It was bad enough when homophobia was being ignored but now it's been officially sanctioned.

Qatar is a terrible choice for many other reasons. We won't be seeing any photos of happy tipsy fans toasting their team's victory in 2022 because public drunkenness is also a crime in the host nation. You get lashes for that too. As you do for 'illicit sexual relations'. Amnesty International reported that in 2009 this offence led to dozens of people being imprisoned and suffering 40-100 lashes.

Women's rights are also dire there, there is no law against domestic violence for one thing while wearing 'provocative' clothing is a crime. So there go those shots of happy Brazilian beach beauties in bras which are a staple part of the television cameraman's World Cup armoury. You can also be arrested for the terrible crime of taking photographs of local people without their permission. So best to leave the iPhone at home.

There are also pragmatic football reasons why the decision stinks. FIFA's own technical report on Qatar as a possible venue said that there was a 'health risk' for both players and fans because the temperature during World Cup time could be as high as 50 degrees centigrade. Qatar has little football tradition, having never qualified for the finals previously. The national team is currently ranked 113th in the world, in between The Central African Republic and Thailand. The country has a population of 1.3 million, the majority of whom are poorly paid immigrant workers, and is so small that all the stadia for the finals will be within 30 miles of each other, something which will surely present logistical problems in terms of crowd control. That's if anyone wants to go to the finals.

And speaking of those immigrant workers, who mainly come from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Qatar's record in dealing with them is absolutely shameful. According to the Solidarity Center, set up by America's largest trade union the AFL-CIO to promote workers rights worldwide, in 2006 over 60 Nepali workers died from heart attacks caused by working in the searing heat to prepare the capital city of Doha for the Asian Games. These migrant workers commonly live 12 to a room in special labour camps, and are deported if they

seek improvements in their wages or conditions. God knows what the amount of human suffering will be while these workers are building the stadia for 2022. It's unlikely that we'll find out from local journalists given that criticising the country's rulers or its military are also offences which carry a prison sentence.

What a wonderful place. FIFA's apologists will no doubt use the old standard argument that the award of the event might actually lead to the liberalisation of the host nation. Look how the Beijing Olympics was followed by China withdrawing from Tibet, becoming a multi-party democracy and freeing all its dissidents. It was, wasn't it?

In reality, what FIFA have done is bring the game of football into disrepute and proven that there are no depths to which the motley crew at the top of the sport will not sink. The choice is a complete mystery. What can the incorruptible gentlemen of FIFA possibly have seen in a bid backed by the incredibly rich oilmen of Qatar? I guess we'll never know.

Sportswriters, like FIFA officials, can't be bribed. So my decision to change my mind and declare Qatar an ideal World Cup venue has nothing to do with the Emir and people hiring me to write the tournament song in the last few minutes. A one and a two, and a one, two, three,

four . . .

"Give them a lash sheikh, give them a lash sheikh,

Rev it up for 2022,

If you're not queer and you don't like beer,

Qatar will be the place for you."

Sunday Independent

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