So here we are, almost two weeks before the World Cup and FIFA president Gianni Infantino and secretary general Fatma Samoura dispatch their call to arms, landing in the laps of football federations competing at the tournament in Qatar.
The email arrived at around 7pm (UK time) on Thursday night and within three hours it leaked and found its way onto the Sky News website.
“Please, let’s now focus on the football!” Infantino and Samoura implored.
The pair continued: “We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world.
“But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”
The message, therefore, was clear. Heads down, know your place, keep quiet and stick to the footy.
For those with the misfortune to follow Infantino for a living, the newfound limitations of football’s transformative power may come as a surprise.
It is a contrast, for example, to a moment earlier this year of what can only be described as Peak Infantino. The stage was Davos, the Swiss alpine resort, and the World Economic Forum in May. For the uninitiated, Davos is the kind of self-important hellscape made for Infantino, where the world’s most wealthy and privileged ruminate over their own potential to cleanse the world of any and all ills.
The FIFA website followed up Infantino’s appearance with a report entitled “FIFA President: Football can change the world.”
Infantino said: “(Nelson) Mandela was saying that sport can change the world, that it can inspire, that it unites, and he was right with that. Football, as the most popular sport in the world, has a unique reach.”
Just over five months on and Infantino’s revolutionary zeal appears to have left him behind. The letter on Thursday night did not directly mention any of the most controversial aspects of this year’s World Cup in Qatar, most notably the treatment of the migrant workers that built the stadiums, the homophobic laws that threaten the safety of LGBT+ Qataris and visitors, as well as the calls for FIFA to take a position on Iran, whose drones are supporting Russia in pummeling Ukrainian territory, not to mention the current protests going on in the country around women’s rights.
But the letter did seem to strongly hint that it would be unwise for federations to focus on such topics.
The letter continued: “At FIFA, we try to respect all opinions and beliefs without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world.
“One of the great strengths of the world is indeed its very diversity, and if inclusion means anything, it means having respect for that diversity. No one people or culture or nation is ‘better’ than any other.
“This principle is the very foundation stone of mutual respect and non-discrimination. And this is also one of the core values of football. So, please let’s all remember that and let football take centre stage.”
It may, at this point, be useful to remind Infantino just how the world works. When he pleads for football not to be “dragged into every ideological” battle, maybe he needs to be told that homosexuality is not an ideology. It is the way a person is born; it is within us, it is who we are, it is who I am. If we accept a person’s sexuality as inherent, that it is a matter of nature rather than nurture, then we also recognise that to criticise or criminalise a person for their sexuality is manifestly irrational.
Infantino’s words, however, appear to argue that the “inclusion” of respecting homosexuality is of equal value to the “inclusion” of respecting the criminalisation of homosexuality.
This argument appears to be that true tolerance means to be tolerant of violent and harmful intolerance. It means that the worldview of two loving women, married and raising children together, is of equal value to that, for example, of Salah Al-Yafei. This man describes himself as an “educational consultant” at Qatar’s Aspire academy, which houses Qatar’s most talented young sports stars. He has 60,000 Instagram followers and one recent video stated: “Faced with open promotion of homosexuality, the disapproval in your expression and demeanour has a big impact on children, as it conveys the message to them that this is something that is deviant and we shouldn’t accept it.” This is the life of shame inflicted upon gay people in Qatar, where the homophobic rhetoric treats a person’s natural state as an ailment that must be at best repressed or, at worst, cured.
A fortnight out from the tournament, Infantino’s words have gone down like a bucket of cold sick with those who believe that broadcasters, media, federations and journalists should have the freedom to scrutinise the hosts of the most popular sporting tournament in the world. As such, it is not only lamentable content but also dumbfoundingly stupid as a strategy, alienating those who FIFA may wish to keep on side during the next few weeks.
Yet the reality is that Qatar enablers, so keen to protect their relationships, often do the state more harm than good. Take, for example, the British foreign secretary James Cleverly, who recently told a radio station that British LGBT+ people travelling to Doha ought to “flex and compromise” if they visit during the World Cup. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Cleverly’s meek apologism is the result of British business interests being closely tied up in Qatar, whether it be the £1.5billion ($1.7bn) worth of British contracts linked to the tournament, or the British RAF planes protecting the skies, or the £6billion worth of Typhoon jets Britain has sold to Qatar in recent years. In that context, the plight of LGBT+ people in Qatar appears to be an afterthought.
And the truth is that it remains a footnote for the sport itself. We should remember, for example, that when Qatar were awarded this competition in 2010, the Premier League was still several years away from its annual Rainbow Laces campaign, which was only introduced after the competition was dragged kicking and screaming into it by a publicity stunt from the bookmakers Paddy Power. In recent years, as the World Cup drew closer, the vast majority of national federations have done next to nothing to raise concerns about the situation for LGBT+ Qataris and travelling fans. The English Football Association, for example, signed a Memoranda of Understanding both with the Qatar FA and the Orwellian-named Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy in 2018. The then chairman Greg Clarke announced these ties while posing in front of the English FA’s “Football For All” logo — following zero consultation with English LGBT+ football supporters. Those memoranda remain intact to this day.
Since then, the Qatari authorities have offered very little on the record over the years to reassure LGBT+ citizens or visitors. They often say vague phrases like “everyone is welcome” but always caveat the message with an insistence visitors must respect Qatari culture, which leaves people like myself, travelling to the tournament, unsure on the state’s meaningful position on key issues. What would happen, for example, should I write about LGBT+ issues while on the ground in Doha during the coming month? In the absence of Qatari clarity, we are left in the absurd position where football executives from the English FA speak on behalf of a different state’s law enforcement agency.
As such, we heard from Mark Bullingham, the chief executive of the English FA, who brought the news in late September that LGBT+ couples who hold hands in Qatar will not be prosecuted. “They’ve absolutely told us all the right answers for anything we’ve talked about,” Bullingham said, appearing to praise the tournament’s hosts.
When we step back from the surrealism of this tournament, is it not completely baffling that a football organisation is telling us how a country intends to apply its penal code when that country is so reluctant to state such matters for themselves? Then we have the absurdity of this reassurance landing in September, eight weeks before the tournament, as though the English gays have been waiting for 12 years since Qatar’s winning bid for a polite FA nod to then start saving and scrimping for tickets two months before the World Cup kicks off.
And if Bullingham is so confident in the host’s welcome, why is the English (and other European nations) proposed statement in support of LGBT+ people at the tournament consisting only of an armband bearing a “One Love” slogan? This shows a colour design that does not appear to be the rainbow commonly recognised as a symbol of the LGBT+ community. If the hosts are so generous, so inclusive and so open to dialogue, why does it not state “gay rights” or call out Qatar’s laws against homosexuality? Why will these federations of freedom fighters not recognise clearly the people they claim to want to stand up for?
Perhaps an answer to the reticence came in the I newspaper on Thursday, where a gay man in Qatar revealed he was lured to a hotel room via a dating app and found Qatari officials waiting to attack him upon arrival. They raped him, the report said, before arresting him.
Anyway, as Gianni says, back to the football everyone.
(Top photo: Stephen McCarthy – FIFA / FIFA via Getty Images)