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Football’s Last Taboos: Part #7 - Homophobia, corruption, World Cup & green shoots of optimism

Leaving countries that oppose equality and same-sex marriage to rot in isolation does not help the cause for minority groups who suffer in those places. Football supporters can change that and have a duty to their brethren and sisters to do so. Not everyone needs rainbows, but we should all hold hands.

Extraordinary FIFA Executive Committee Meeting Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

We all know it. The FBI are investigating, several indicted, some arrested, much of the physical proof is hidden or destroyed, hundreds of workable computers linked to the bidding process and the subsequent awarding of World Cups have mysteriously disappeared - most likely joining some rotting Mafioso in cement slippers at the bottom of the ocean.

But we don’t really need the FBI to confirm that FIFA are about as clean as a gangrenous wound on the butt of a rabies infested warthog. FIFA have been ran for decades like a secretive, elite club of slithering illuminates who feed in the trough of greased palms and slippery ethics, only looking up when another free meal hurtles their way.

The dubious determination to give consecutive World Cups to Russia and Qatar was a decision taken on the back of diamond encrusted watches, suspicious investment and secretive handshakes-sealed in darkened corners of private member’s clubs. Despite the pious protestations of the corruptible charlatans of FIFA, this was not a flag bearing charge for the good of football nor was the decision to hold a World Cup in countries with flagrantly questionable track records on human rights a symbol of unity for the broad church of supporters who gather under the umbrella of football.

Qatar Looks To 2022 FIFA World Cup Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

No consideration was taken about the challenges that would face supporters from around the globe as they gather for football’s biggest festival. No thought regarding the state sponsored football hooligans who according to Russia’s Deputy Speaker of the State Duma, Igor Lebedev are courageous patriots:

In nine out of 10 cases... the lads defended the honour of their country and did not let others desecrate our motherland. We should forgive and understand our fans... who protect the motherland.

The motherland? Are we in 1932?

Igor Lebedev is essentially the Nigel Farage of Russian politics; he is largely taken as a joke throughout the nation exactly due to comments like the one above.

Consideration was neither given for the blatant disregard Qatar show for human rights, where the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that as many as 4,000 expatriate construction workers will die before the World Cup gets underway in 2022 - such are the scandalous living and working conditions that impoverished workers are forced to endure. Even if that number is significantly lower when the first ball is actually kicked in their tournament, the fact that any worker would die in torturous conditions during the build up to a world cup is still a debasement of the game, but much more importantly - human life. Even that takes second place to crossing a palm with silver.

All supporters will be heading off to these two countries with buckets full of trepidation.

Northampton Town v Bury - Sky Bet League One Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

But perhaps the supporters with the most understandable angst will be the thousands of LGBT football supporters from countries all around the globe, where tolerance is a common practice rather than an enemy of the state.

Fans in Russia and Qatar are among the most homophobic in the world, according to the largest-ever study of its kind. LGBT equality charity Stonewall surveyed 50,000 supporters in 38 countries on attitudes to homosexuality, with results placing the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts in the 10 least-accepting nations. The poll showed that the majority of Russians say they would not feel comfortable with a gay or bisexual player representing their national team while in Qatar, the study shows that only 14 per cent of the country would tolerate a gay or bisexual player. Currently in Qatar, homosexuality is illegal and the punishment is seven years in prison or, in some extreme cases, death.

The survey by Stonewall was carried out in partnership with global sporting media group, Forza Football. Forza CEO Patrik Arnesson revealed the results with a sad acceptance:

Though I am proud of this report and our ability to give football fans one collective voice, the results make for unsettling reading.

The study also asked whether a country’s attitude regarding LGBT rights should be a consideration on which host nations are selected for international tournaments. In Russia, only 26 per cent of those questioned believed we should have a pre-tournament discussion about LGBT rights, while in Qatar it’s even lower at 14%. No surprise really considering that in both places they have a history of considering anyone’s rights an irritable burden - an affront to their deviated sense of nationalism.

England v Russia - Group B: UEFA Euro 2016 Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

Russia wears the scars of neo-fascism well, with organised football hooligans acting as state sponsored Stormtroopers attempting to slow the cultural evolution and keep the heavy boots of tyranny pressed tightly on the necks of those (and there are many) courageous progressives who are desperate to eliminate the dark shadow of oppression. Though it must be added, this hooliganism element is a small minority of fans in the nation, and the vast majority are very open and welcoming, just “normal” football fans who simply love the game just like us. Think back to the 1980s in England, and how we overcame the problems of hooliganism. Due to the Soviet Union pervading thought control, they're undergoing now what we did 30 year ago, and that must not be forgotten.

Likewise in Qatar, where the battle to retain control of a traditional theocracy and the requirement to modernise social attitudes continues to smoulder. Evolution is not always pain free, but is still however necessary.

BUT - there is cause for optimism – the green shoots of progress are beginning to sprout. Despite Russia’s current showing they have made astounding progress. Across the globe there has been a general revolution of quiet tolerance and liberalism, the roots of which entwining themselves to Russia’s cultural heartlands. While still trailing behind more progressive countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Iceland, the UK and other European luminaries, Russia shows the greatest improvement in attitudes when compared to a similar survey from three years ago. In 2014, just 21 per cent of Russian fans said they would be comfortable with a gay player representing their national team, compared to 47 per cent today. After this coming World Cup and in another three years I’m certain more hearts and minds will be opened.

Soccerex Global Convention 2016 Day 1
Thomas Hitzlsberger retired before coming out publicly as gay.
Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images for Soccerex

However, in a world where there are no openly gay footballers in Europe’s top five football leagues and LGBT people still facing discrimination worldwide, the push towards a tolerant global society must still continue and this is exactly why the battle for tolerance cannot be fought by the LGBT community alone. We cannot say; ‘this is your fight - good luck’.

In a previous article I wrote regarding homophobia in football, some of the comments from the world of social media were… let’s just say smashing down the rainbow. Other’s questioned why a married, straight man with three young children should be covering the topic at all as I’m not part of the LGBT community and therefore should leave the subject for those who are directly involved in the fight - these comments are exactly the same opinion which pervades in Russia, and to glorify one side while condemning the other would be wrong. We need to come together.

Manchester United v Brighton and Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

The vast majority however were very supportive from all sides of spectrum. And protecting the rights of minority groups or indeed any group is an issue for all of us whether we know it or not. This is not just a football issue, it’s a family issue, it’s a people issue, it’s a community issue. It could be my son, daughter, or indeed yours that are abused, spat at or imprisoned. In fact it could be anyone we love or care about.

This issue can impact any football fan across the globe regardless of sexuality, gender, race or religion. We all have a role to play and we should definitely play it.

Ruth Hunt, chief executive of Stonewall, said:

In 72 countries same-sex relationships are criminalised and, as this poll shows, where there is anti-LGBT legislation there will inevitably be hostile attitudes.

We believe sport has the power to bring people together and create change.

Football supporters are an amazingly unifying body of people. They gather in dense numbers for a catalogue of charitable causes, so extensive, that if written out could reach from Sunderland to Timbuktu and back again. Football fans of every sexuality can support the right of their fellow die-hard fan to support their club or country wherever their beloved teams play. Football teams demand only our love, passion and commitment. Our sexuality is not a prerequisite for such devotion and nor does it matter.

So perhaps Russia and Qatar never deserved the World Cups that were bequeathed to them. In the first instance it seemed grossly insulting to all football fans that corruption was so blatant and in many cases irreversible. Now, instead of my initial outrage and an angry desire to have both countries stripped of their money spinning tournaments, as a football fan and a family man I view it differently.

Stripping Russian and Qatar of World Cups would not help the LGBT people in either of those countries, who live in constant fear of abuse and attack. The decent, hardworking people who must operate their lives in the shadows at risk of imminent danger simply because of who they love, need the brotherhood that football supporters from around the globe will bring.

These World Cups are actually an opportunity - an opportunity for those living in fear to have the spotlight of world football shine a light on the daily abuses and discrimination they face.

If you yourself, or know a member of the LGBT community who is worried over attending, I’d implore you to watch the video below:

Former FIFA president and now professional impersonator of Toad of Toad Hall, Sepp Blatter, warned the LGBT community in advance of a Qatar World Cup:

... to refrain from all sexual activity.

The Russian police have issued a like-minded warning:

Holding hands could be dangerous and could lead to assault.

Dialogue is key between the west and the east. We are in an information cold war in which either side paints the other as the enemy, but with the 21st Century, and our ability to communicate across the world, we as fans, can bridge the divide. The 2018 World Cup may be the last chance for us to bridge this divide and move on together.

Leaving these countries to rot in isolation does not help the cause for minority groups who suffer in those places. Football supporters can change that and have a duty to their brethren and sisters to do so. Not everyone needs rainbows, but we should all hold hands.