Hal Sparke argues that hosting the World Cup in Russia legitimises its government’s homophobia.

On 2ndDecember 2010, international governing body of football, FIFA, announced that it had selected the locations for the next two World Cup tournaments: Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. To say that these two nations were a surprise would be somewhat of an understatement. Certainly on paper, neither can be considered a footballing powerhouse. Russia, to give them their due, have a relatively successful league with teams that regularly appear in the Champions and Europa Leagues. However, the small middle-eastern nation of Qatar has little-to-no sporting pedigree.

Of course, the footballing abilities of a nation are not necessarily relevant to who gets to host the tournament. As Roger Blitz of the Financial Times has noted, those previously selected are ‘countries of starkly differing sizes and populations but equally ambitious in the use of sport to increase their global standing’.

Few will be surprised that an organisation like FIFA, mired in corruption allegations, appears to take its cue from the highest bidder. With Russia previously proving it’s will to spend heavily upon sporting events, with the Sochi Winter Olympics the most expensive in history. But neither have football fans or associations attempted to bring about changes or to pressurise those in power. The consensus seems to be that this is how things work, and the fan must go along with it. History would disagree with that.

Back in the 1960s, there was mounting pressure upon the South African government to end its apartheid regime and bring about democratic elections. As part of the path to change, a sporting boycott was instituted. In rugby union, a symbol of the Afrikaaner’s culture, there was an agreement from the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) to pull its support from any type of competition involving South Africa’s Springboks.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s and the fall of the regime that the ban was lifted, meaning that they missed out on the first two Rugby World Cup tournaments of 1987 and 1991. Mandela’s new ‘rainbow nation’ went on to host and win the third edition of the tournament in 1995, an event that was seen as a turning point for reconciliation in the post-apartheid world.

Fast forward to modern Russia, and what we see happening to the LGBT community is not markedly different. While we may not see separate schools or public facilities for people of the LGBT population, we do still have a system of de jure homophobia. In 2013, the Russian government passed a series of laws, supposedly to protect children from being exposed to homonormative views that corrupted ‘family values’. These ‘homosexuality propaganda laws’ (as they are known in the West) place restrictions upon the civil rights of people due to a factor of their person that is out of their control in a not dissimilar way to Apartheid South Africa. The picture in Qatar is no brighter where homosexual acts can bring a jail sentence of up to 7 years.

Moreover, both nations, while they show various practical differences, see sport as a catalyst for developing their economic and international standing. Russia spent heavily on hosting the aforementioned 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, while Qatari firm Oryx Qatari Sports Investments (QSi) own Paris Saint Germain, one of the wealthiest clubs in world football, willing to spend approximately £200 million on a single player, Neymar.

All of this bears repeating because, so far, fans, journalists and politicians alike have shown little appetite to directly address such issues. Instead, talk of suitability has focused on the easier issues: Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme; and the fact that Qatar may be too hot to play in. Dutch parliament member Richard De Mos suggested the national team (should they qualify for Qatar 2022) play in an all pink strip to protest the country’s conditions. As of yet, we have not seen any such suggestion from a mainstream political figure in UK, instead the recent spy poisoning cases and diplomat expulsions have fueled the only notion of boycotting the tournament. We seem to be worrying more about Harry Kane sweating a little or Boris Johnson looking somewhat rash in his press statements, than the normalising of anti-LGBT sentiment.

The picture becomes more disturbing when we consider the fate of LGBT players and fans. In the UK statistics suggest that homophobia may well be as rife as other forms of abuse. A House of Commons report highlighted that 72% of football fans in the UK have directly heard homophobic language being used at matches, while 8% admitted that they would stop watching their team if they brought in an openly gay player. When 2% of UK population identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, why is there still the lack of openly gay footballers in the professional English leagues? It is easy to suggest that it is simply FIFA’s fault, but the truth may be a harder pill to swallow, and that possibly it is from the fans upwards through the ranks that is the real source of the problem.

We seem to be worrying more about Harry Kane sweating a little or Boris Johnson looking somewhat rash in his press statements, than the normalising of anti-LGBT sentiment.

Turning back to racism, you look hard enough on the captain’s armbands or the advertising boards at most matches organised by FIFA or UEFA, you will most likely see a slogan denouncing racism in the game, yet you rarely, if ever see them doing the same for homophobic abuse. As we have seen from recent incidents such as Suarez-Evra, Terry-Ferdinand, and the stories of young Liverpool striker,Rhian Brewster, racism does generate plenty of media attention (although whether that attention leads to any soul-searching is more debatable).

For those of us who do not have to live with the burden of discrimination, passivity is the far more convenient choice. Law changes and civil rights seem to have progressed without my help over many years so why not allow the problem to fix itself? Well, because ultimately, there are those who will have to avoid that ‘Fan’s Travel Bundle’, no matter how good value it may be. Why? For being who they are. For those around the world who love the beautiful game, but feel as though it does not reciprocate such feelings.

The answer is not simple. Do we build from the grassroots? Attempt to try and effect those in local communities worldwide in changing their attitudes? Or do we set out our culture from the top? Might we see a change from FIFA’s approach, especially when willing to welcome nations such as Saudi Arabia or Uganda into international competition while their governments maintain a system of capital punishment against those within the LGBT community? Whatever the answer may be, I fear that ultimately ignorance shall be our bliss. That the authoritarian regime shall give us a spectacle, it will be broadcast, and we shall receive it gratefully. Another four years will go by and we shall repeat the process, and whenever we read articles such as this we shall simply repeat the mantra, ‘sport and politics do not mix’. A ridiculous notion if I ever heard one. A famous man I mentioned earlier once said that sport has the power to change the world. The one remaining question now is: when?

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