The World Cup seems intent on shaking the life out of the beautiful game
In case you were wondering how much LGBTQ+ rights are worth to footballers, it lies somewhere between acceptable accessory and a single yellow card.
That is, after all, the supposed punishment that was enough to scare off the captains of England, Wales, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland from wearing the OneLove logo on their armbands as the World Cup kicked off in Qatar.
In the great arithmetic of value in a footballer’s mind, making a stand on human rights ranks lower than taking off your shirt to celebrate a goal, or wasting a few seconds on a goal kick.
The great irony, of course, is that the OneLove armband was intentionally designed to be as inoffensive a protest as possible.
It had finally been given some bite by Fifa threatening to explore ‘sporting sanctions’ – so obviously all seven teams immediately folded and none wore the armband.
The German team, ahead of their meeting with Japan yesterday, were the sole team to display any sort of defiance, with the players covering their mouths as they lined up for their pre-match photo. While the gesture is certainly more appreciated than simply complaining after the game and pretending the situation is completely out of their hands, it all still feels a bit odd.
For starters, the German players’ demonstration shifts the issue away from raising awareness over the draconian anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Qatar and onto how footballers have been silenced. Whether or not it was their intention, they have centred the issue on how it affects them.
Having seen their peers slated for bowing to the pressure and not wearing the armband, the German players have cleverly recast themselves as the heroes once more, all the while avoiding the pesky irritant of an actual, tangible sacrifice.
Again, the mooted punishment here was not a point deduction or expulsion from the tournament. It wouldn't even be a suspension. It would be one yellow card. For one player.
Would Fifa be wrong to hand out such a punishment? Absolutely.
Could the players still take the hit and go ahead with it? Of course, if they wanted to.
So I find myself categorising the whole thing under ‘disappointed but not surprised’. We LGBTQ+ fans are more than used to being told to be grateful for scraps in all walks of life, but especially in men’s sports.
Teams and organisations have been happy to pay lip service to the LGBTQ+ cause with campaigns such as the rainbow laces – which, let’s not forget, was originally a publicity stunt for a gambling company. But when push comes to shove, they’ll leave us behind once it stops being easy.
The whole OneLove fiasco has confirmed that I was right to turn my back on the men’s game. The failed launch of the European Super League (though the concept seems to be dormant rather than dead) was the final straw, but there was a time when I was a football obsessive. I even blagged my way into a career covering the Premier League, popping up everywhere from the BBC to Armenian TV to discuss “the beautiful game”.
As a bisexual man, the world of football hasn’t always been the most welcoming. At least not men’s football, anyway. I’ve heard enough ‘rent boy’ chants to know that coming out isn’t always a safe option in footballing circles.
That’s not unique to football, though. Anecdotally, it feels like it’s getting less safe to be queer since there have been a number of homophobic and transphobic attacks here in Ireland over the last year.
In the early hours of Sunday morning – Transgender Day of Remembrance and the day the World Cup kicked off in Qatar – the grandson of a Republican lawmaker went into a gay bar in Colorado Springs in the US and opened fire. He killed five people and injuring scores more. In a show of true courage, two unarmed Club Q patrons, Richard Fierro and an as of yet unnamed trans woman, subdued the shooter and prevented him from causing any more harm.
For all the progress we have made, this is still the reality many LGBTQ+ folk face. We can never truly feel safe even in supposedly tolerant countries when the safe spaces we have carved out for ourselves can become targets.
And so the various issues with men’s football have pushed me to the women’s game – where stars such as Megan Rapinoe and Katie McCabe are unafraid to speak out. It’s telling that it was female commentator Alex Scott who decided to wear the OneLove armband during the BBC broadcast, and not one of her male colleagues.
And if all of that’s too abstract, then the English players needed only to look to their opponents on Monday to see what bravery looks like in the face of real oppression. The Iranian players refused to sing their national anthem, before speaking out against their government’s violent crackdown on protests.
While they were willing to risk everything, perhaps Harry Kane and co can ask themselves why a yellow card was a step too far.