The FIFA World Cup is never short on drama. The world’s most anticipated soccer (or football, depending on who you ask) tournament brings fans together every four years to witness emerging superstars, last-minute goals, thrilling upsets and controversial officiating. But not all the drama at the 2022 World Cup hosted in Qatar is taking place on the pitch.
Qatari leaders as well as officials from FIFA, the governing body for international soccer, have insisted for years that the World Cup would be open for everyone to enjoy — including members of the LGBTQ community. This is despite the host country’s laws restricting same-sex sexual activity, which can carry a punishment of up to seven years of imprisonment.
Qatar’s ruling Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani told the U.N. months before the tournament’s opening match on November 20 that the small Arab nation would welcome people “without discrimination.” FIFA’s head of fan experience, Gerdine Lindhout, echoed this warm welcome, saying there is “no risk” to LGBTQ fans attending matches and showing public affection when inside the official tournament zones.
Yet, the reception of rainbow shirts and Pride armbands hasn’t been as warmly welcomed as FIFA and Qatar led to believe. Security guards have heckled fans and journalists with Pride gear trying to enter the stadiums and FIFA has threatened to penalize teams wearing rainbow armbands intended to show solidarity and support for the LGBTQ community.
American sportswriter Grant Wahl says he was detained for nearly half an hour and “angrily demanded” to remove his rainbow T-shirt before guards ultimately granted him entry. In Wales’ opening match against the United States, women Welsh fans had their rainbow bucket hats confiscated upon entry. Oddly, men — who are subject to far stricter punishments for same-sex sexual activity in the country — were not asked to remove their rainbow hats.
FIFA reportedly offered apologies in both instances and has reemphasized its stance that Pride gear is permissible throughout the stadiums. Though FIFA is allowing fans to wear the gear — including the Welsh women, who returned for the team’s second match a few days later with the same rainbow hats — it’s taken a harsher approach for the players representing their countries on the field.
Players from seven European teams competing in the tournament — Belgium, Denmark, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Wales — abandoned plans to wear “OneLove” armbands (pictured above) after FIFA announced it would issue a yellow card to each player donning the symbol. Two yellow cards in a game sends a player off for the match and disqualifies the player for an additional match.
Ironically, the ban on the armbands had its own unintended consequences. The Dutch company that manufactures the armbands, Badge Direct BV, said it had completely sold out its inventory within two weeks after FIFA announced the ban.
FIFA’s resistance to fully embrace the LGBTQ community on the largest stage is at odds with the progress made from the football world’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives the past several years. Nearly every major international soccer league — Premier League (England), Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain), MLS (United States), and others — have made concerted efforts to engage and support the LGBTQ community.
Soccer is far and away the world’s most popular sport, and the World Cup is the unquestioned leader in most anticipated and viewed tournament. A staggering 3.5 billion people — just shy of half the entire world’s population at the time — tuned in to watch at least one minute of game action for the 2018 World Cup held in Russia.
Of course, the host country has the right to subject its visitors to its customs and cultures. Qatar changing course on serving beers in the stadiums to abide by its strict alcohol consumption policies disgruntled many fans and lost merchants profits, but it’s likely not a life changing event.
But FIFA, as the organizing body who chose Qatar to host the World Cup amid extreme controversy and corruption charges, also has the right — and obligation — to support all fans and players who have traveled from every continent to experience their event. Promoting inclusivity — or at least offering the space and freedom for others to do so — on the biggest stage of the most popular sport is an opportunity too rich to pass up.
From a business perspective, it’s also a simple step FIFA could take to help repair a reputation that’s seen better days since awarding Qatar the 2022 host honors a dozen years ago. Beyond the suspect corruption allegations behind the bid, the construction of seven new stadiums were built by low-paid migrant workers who endured poor working and living conditions. A Qatari official pegs the deaths of migrant workers to be in the 400-500 range, though a 2021 report from the Guardian suggests the number of deaths could be as high as 6,500.
As the World Cup soon reaches the quarter-finals round, the spotlight grows brighter. The world will be watching to see if and how FIFA and Qatar can make good on their word: a tournament where everyone belongs.
Image credit: Royal Dutch Football Association and Badge Direct VB
Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.