One Love? One kick in the teeth after another at this World Cup for queer football fans

The One Love armband Credit: Alamy
The One Love armband Credit: Alamy

The One Love armband was already a sanitised symbol but now it’s just a symbol for bottling it; and then bucket hats and t-shirts were targeted…

On Saturday night, five people were killed and 17 others were injured in a mass shooting at a gay club in the US state of Colorado. Club Q has been described as the heart of the LGBTQ+ community in the city of Colorado Springs and was supposed to be a safe space.

Earlier that day, the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, gave a bewildering press conference on the eve of the World Cup in Qatar to hit out at those critical of the tournament’s location. In his speech – in which he claimed to feel Qatari, Arabic, African, gay, disabled, like a migrant worker, and like a woman – he played down concerns that queer fans faced danger in a country where gay people risk torture and imprisonment.

“They have confirmed and I can confirm that everyone is welcome,” he said.

Of course, this came in the settling dust of a swift U-turn on the legality of alcohol sales at stadiums during the tournament. Infantino continued: “If this is the biggest issue we have for the World Cup, then I will resign immediately and go to the beach to relax. I think if for three hours a day you cannot drink a beer, you will survive.”

The point, of course, is not whether fans can survive without alcohol, but rather what other promises will Qatar renege on with little-to-no notice? Maybe whether everyone is welcome…

The shooting at Club Q is very important context ahead of the World Cup and Infantino’s remarks. Infantino is a man speaking at a platform with straight, white, male privilege claiming to understand and relate to experiences of people who do not have straight, white, male privilege – and he’s claiming to understand it because, in his younger days, some kids would say mean things about his red hair and freckles.

The USA, a country where many believe freedom to be queer is at the freer end of the scale, ranked 23rd in a recent list of social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people by The Williams Institute, which conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. Qatar ranked 111th on that same list.

For context, the UK ranked 9th. For further context, Home Office figures suggest homophobic hate crimes were up by 41% in the UK in 2021.

The hate crimes experienced by many LGBTQ+ people across the world – and the looming spectre of the possible hate crime that queer people are consistently in the shadow of – are impossible to relate to unless it is something a person has done or felt. In fact, Infantino’s speech suggests he’s not even empathetic to those experiences, but instead incredibly dismissive.

But if that press conference was starting the tournament on the wrong foot, Monday’s events were more like oversleeping in the morning ahead of the competition, crashing the car en route to the venue, then breaking both ankles tripping over the starting blocks…and then starting on the wrong foot.

Let’s be clear here: The bar for football and its treatment of LGBTQ+ people and rights is already very low. If it’s not on the floor, then there’s not much thicker than a sheet of paper that could fit under it, and yet it was still impossible for the sport’s governing body and the English, Welsh, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, German, and Swiss FAs to clear.

Those seven nations had committed to their captains wearing the rather weak One Love armband in Qatar, as a message against discrimination and a show of support for the LGBTQ+ community. An already-sanitised symbol, the armband didn’t actually carry any sort of meaningful message; the rainbow logo design is not one that is used by any part of the queer community and the phrase ‘One Love’ is nothing but vague and watered-down.

But when FIFA threatened action against those captains, the seven nations backed down in a heartbeat, revealing their true message: They are perfectly happy to show support to marginalised groups, providing it involves no actual repercussions. The armband was supposed to be a protest, but a protest without accepting the repercussions is meaningless.

The One Love armband that FIFA has banned from the World Cup. Credit: Alamy
The One Love armband that FIFA has banned from the World Cup. Credit: Alamy

The irony, of course, is that the armband did begin to mean something as soon as FIFA threatened action against it.

In a joint statement, the seven FAs said: ‘FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play. As national federations, we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked the captains not to attempt to wear the armbands in FIFA World Cup games.’

The LGBTQ+ community isn’t even worth a yellow card, but players will routinely accept a booking (or risk of a booking) for diving or taking off their shirt in a goal celebration.

After England’s 6-2 victory over Iran on Monday, their captain Harry Kane said that he wanted to wear the armband, but the decision was out of his control. He instead was instructed to wear FIFA’s ‘no discrimination’ armband, a campaign brought forward from the quarter-final stage. “I turned up to the stadium with the armband that I wore and I was told I had to wear that,” Kane said. “Look, it’s out of our control as players.”

Kane, of course, is not exempt from criticism here, but he should be cut more slack than the others involved. If we take his words at face value – and it’s only fair that we do – then he’s had a decision sprung upon him in the run-up to his country’s opening World Cup match. However, he and the English FA can’t have their cake and eat it.

If they really wanted to wear it, they could have done and accepted the consequences. After all, Kane’s previous disciplinary record for club and country is exemplary; he could probably have made it through the 90 minutes without a second caution (as he did).

Imagine how ridiculous it would look to have had Kane shown a yellow card before the match kicked off. Imagine what a statement that image becomes. Imagine FIFA had gone further and issued a suspension (as some reports suggested they could have done), that statement is more than some colours and a meaningless slogan. Suddenly ‘One Love’ has a message.

Instead, when FIFA called their bluff, the seven nations admitted they were bluffing. If Kane really does want to wear the armband, he’s got another opportunity on Friday.

To complete an exhausting day and mark Monday as the gift that kept on giving for queer fans, rainbow-coloured bucket hats were confiscated from some Welsh supporters on entry to the stadium ahead of their 1-1 draw with the USA.

Meanwhile, the US journalist Grant Wahl says he was detained for 25 minutes and had his phone confiscated for trying to enter the ground in a t-shirt with a rainbow logo, despite assurances from FIFA that rainbows on clothing and flags would be permitted.

Remember, according to Infantino, at this World Cup “everyone is welcome”.

However, in the face of everything that’s happened at this tournament so far, it’s abundantly clear that that is not true. Football already has a difficult relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, with many feeling unwelcome in even the most welcoming of countries and, as the years tick by, it’s increasingly obvious that rainbow laces or special armbands are nothing more than PR stunts to be seen to be doing the right thing.

As much as LGBTQ+ supporters don’t feel like they can go to support their team in Qatar, many also don’t feel comfortable in stadiums watching Premier League or Football League games.

But those who say, as Infantino did, that we should examine ourselves before criticising others are missing the point. It allows anybody off the hook with anything because no country, no sporting body, no government, no person is perfect, and in that scenario one has to be to demand change.

Instead, the conclusion has to be that football in the UK must do better as well.

It’s time to prove to the queer fans that they aren’t there to be exploited and that the sport can and will have their backs, especially when it’s not convenient.

David Mooney – follow him on Twitter

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