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2023-01-09 Stefano Basaglia

Reduced to Silence: LGBTQI+ Issues in Qatar

The latest, controversial edition of the Football World Cup has once again raised questions linked to the issue of rights, inclusion, and the fight against discrimination. By complying with the requests (and impositions) of Qatar, FIFA failed to use the championship as an opportunity to defend and promote those rights that some countries do not intend to recognize, although they are careful not to lose a business opportunity such as the World Cup.


On Sunday, December 18, 2022, the twenty-second edition of the FIFA World Cup, held in Qatar, came to a close. It was a very controversial edition, given that Qatar is a dictatorship that tramples on the most elementary social and human rights, and in which there is no separation between state and religion. In particular, there is currently serious discrimination against women, LGBTQI+ persons, and ethnic minorities. Back in 2010, when the championship was awarded, the daily La Repubblica commented on FIFA’s decision as follows: “Business has won out. The history of soccer has been trampled on. The 2018 World Cup will be organized by Russia, and the 2022 games by Qatar.”[1]

Questions linked to rights, diversity, and inclusion increasingly have geopolitical value. States, associations, organizations, and businesses find themselves having to decide if and how to “do business” with countries and in countries that deny human rights. Various questions come into play in this field: the relationship between global and local dimensions, the issue of the specificity of contexts, the processes of modernization of rights that could be triggered by a change in backwards situations, corruption scandals, etc. Qatar itself is in the news not only for the World Cup, but also due to the presumed corruption of members of the European Parliament. We won’t try to unravel this intricate web of issues and questions here, but we will focus only on FIFA.

The awarding of the 2020 FIFA World Cup is not the first one to be controversial. Among the many, we can recall the 1934 World Cup given to fascist Italy, the awarding of the championship to Videla’s Argentina in 1978, and most recently, that given to Russia in 2018. However, we want to discuss here whether FIFA - apart from the decision made in 2010 - could have managed the issue of rights better. The response is yes. In particular, it could have made the World Cup an opportunity to give a display of diversity and its importance.

By way of example, we can cite the way the question of the rights of LGBTQI+ persons was treated. For Qatar homophobia and transphobia are principles of state. The ambassador of the Qatar World Cup, in an interview with German television, said that LGBTQI+ soccer players and fans would have to accept the rules of Qatar, and that homosexuality represents behavior that is haram, i.e. “prohibited”: “You know what haram means? […] I am not a strict Muslim but why is it haram? Because it is damage in the mind.”[2]

Ilga, the international association for LGBTQI+ rights, repeatedly expressed its worries to FIFA regarding discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons.[3] Seven national teams (Belgium, Holland, Wales, England, Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany) had communicated their intention to take the field having their captains wear the “One Love” rainbow armband. FIFA officially prohibited the use of the armband. If anyone wore it they would risk a fine or a yellow card. The seven national teams thus responded to FIFA: “We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband. However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play.” “We are very frustrated by the FIFA decision which we believe is unprecedented - we wrote to FIFA in September informing them of our wish to wear the One Love armband to actively support inclusion in football, and had no response. Our players and coaches are disappointed - they are strong supporters of inclusion and will show support in other ways.”[4] Julia Ehrt, executive director of Ilga Mondo, and Henry Koh, executive director of Ilga Asia, wrote an open letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, in which they report on cases of violation of the freedom of journalists and fans.[5] The directors also stress that FIFA is in favor of human rights policies in words only, but then does not implement such policies in practice. They conclude by writing: “If sport has the power to bring people together in equality, this men’s World Cup is failing spectacularly. We trust that FIFA will change course from now on, do all in its power to meaningfully commit to human rights for all, and rebuild trust that these days and months have so seriously tarnished.”[6]

FIFA failed to make the World Cup an opportunity to try to trigger a change in Qatar and similar countries, to recall that favoring “business” does not necessarily mean trampling on human rights, and as in the case of Qatar, on people’s lives. The latest affront was to allow the reigning emir to make the captain of the winning team wear a bisht, a traditional cloak that is a symbol of Arab and Muslim culture.[7] The rainbow armband that is a symbol of the rights of the LGBTQI+ community no, but the cloak yes; a double standard.

We hope that in the future FIFA does not commit the same mistakes, and avoids awarding the World Cup to countries in which some people are not given the right to exist, or at least sets rules such that those people do not feel excluded. On the other hand, it is up to the country that wishes to project an international dimension to integrate other cultures, opening itself up (in our case) also to diversity. The international community and its most advanced nations in terms of rights must certainly not have to go backwards and sacrifice the principles of equality and the fight against discrimination. If countries do not wish to “open up,” they should probably avoid participating in these competitions.

The coherence between word and deed does not only regard FIFA, but also countries and other organizations such as businesses, museums, cultural institutions, and universities. Those who claim they are in favor of diversity cannot then trample on - in decisions, events, and actions - the values and principles on which inclusion is based. It will be interesting to see who will be awarded Expo 2030 e and the twenty-fourth edition of the World Cup, planned for the same year. Some say that Saudi Arabia is among the favorites,[8] another champion of rights and freedom. We will wait and see.

[1] F. Bianchi, “I nuovi padroni. I mondiali a Russia e Qatar: anche Obama contro Blatter,” La Repubblica, December 3, 2010.