Blog: Blatter “humour” shows wasted opportunity to push equality in Qatar and beyond

It is unfortunate in the eyes of many, this writer included, that we live in an age of political correctness. The universally agreed language adopted by the mainstream media has meant that people are expected before uttering a word to take on board the possibility of offence being taken by anybody, whether real, perceived or imagined. Saying something contentious is something of a no-no these days, and the word liberal (which is supposed to mean, amongst other things freedom of speech) appears to have been ambushed and mutated into something dogmatic and just occasionally, dangerous.

However, outrage to Sepp Blatter’s suggestion that gays or lesbians “should refrain from any sexual activities” at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is not ‘political correctness gone mad’ but an honest and sincere reaction to words that evoke real ignorance. The accepted fact that Sepp was joking somewhat misses the point. Blatter may be misguided in thinking football can immediately change intolerant states, but there are people closer to home who would benefit from a strong stance on the issue.

Reading FIFA’s anti-discrimination policy is eye-opening in itself and may explain why a country in which homosexuality is still illegal was given the World Cup without any major internal objections. Buried away on an old document it reads, “officials may not offend the dignity of a person or group of persons through contemptuous, discriminatory or denigratory words or actions concerning ethnicity, race, colour, culture, language, religion or gender.” The words “sexual orientation” jump straight out of the page by way of omission. This is probably something FIFA need to update rather than there being a more sinister and intolerant explanation, but it would appear there was no reason within the letter of the law to disqualify Qatar as a candidate.

This on its own need not necessarily be a major problem. Leaving aside the debate about how and why Qatar got the games, one would hope that a similar principle to that of the Olympics would apply to the host of a World Cup – namely that for the duration of the tournament, the hosting city becomes Olympia (even Nazi Germany understood this, and toned down their own far more intolerant message for the 1936 Olympiad in Berlin.) Nobody being realistic expects now that Qatar has the World Cup it will become a liberal, laid-back country overnight. However there is no reason why at some point between now and 2022, representatives of FIFA cannot speak to somebody involved with the bid and explain that for one month, the intolerance, bigotry and treatment of decent people as second class citizens stops or the World Cup goes elsewhere. After all, a World Cup marred by human rights abuses is hardly good publicity for anyone – surely even Blatter can see this?

Of course, this will not be enough for many, and there is a very good case for adding intolerance to the multitude of other reasons why the oil state’s bid should not have sailed through with the ease that it did. Former Utah Jazz and England basketball star John Amaechi has been amongst the most vocal in expressing this view, “Qatar is one of 79 countries to ratify a UN declaration deleting references to homosexuality from their resolution condemning unjustified executions. That means, while the current punishment is five years in prison, they support the execution of gay people…what kind of crazy hubris gives that man (Blatter) the idea that, in 12 years, he can drive change in the Middle East, a region that has been resistant to change in this matter under pressure from far bigger and better men? From human rights organisations, Amnesty, leaders from major countries that invest in Qatar?…he’s deluded at best.”

It is a take on the situation that many would have sympathy with, and as stated previously, those seeking yet another reason to decry the decision as madness have an open goal right there (this writer went into some detail about Russia’s human rights record in a previous article.) However, it would appear that for now at least, Qatar will be football’s Olympia in 2022, so this begs a different question. Could a stronger, more decisive reaction (Amaechi referred to “grown adults giggling like schoolchildren”) do something positive in closing arguably the last taboo in football in otherwise civilised countries? This writer believes it could certainly do no harm, and would provide an impetus to those normally of a liberal disposition, but prone to fits of giggling of their own when the words ‘football’ and ‘gay’ are mentioned in the same sentence.

Tom McAvoy’s recent piece here on A Different League perfectly articulated the problem in this country where the sport’s macho culture has led to a culture of secrecy, fear and childish innuendo. That there is not a single gay footballer in the UK is a statistical near-impossibility. That there is no openly gay player is the reality, and this is something which a governing body that claims to promote equality of opportunity needs to look at. It is not about ‘encouraging’ people to ‘out’ themselves (for this is a decision which is strictly down to the individual), but a case of encouraging a climate where the player involved feels that he can if he wants to.

Amaechi, who has also been scathing towards FIFA’s lack of action on prejudice, knows this as well as anyone. In a 2002 interview, he spoke about the culture in his own sport, “If you look at our league, minorities aren’t very well represented. There’s hardly any Hispanic players, no Asian-Americans, so that there’s no openly gay players is no real surprise. It would be like an alien dropping down from space. There’d be fear, then panic: they just wouldn’t know how to handle it.” This was clearly something that was on his mind, as he came out in 2007, some four years after retiring.

The general attitude in this country towards the issue of an individual’s sexuality appears to be pretty solidly laissez-faire. Sure, there is a minority of philistines with unrefined bigotry coursing through their veins and there are an equally tiny set of militant ‘professional homosexuals’ who appear not to want tolerance or apathy, and seem more in pursuit of some sort of medal. However, to the overwhelming majority of us, it simply is not an issue in our everyday lives. Yet this writer has heard countless conversations between normally reasonable and intelligent folk about ‘footballer x’ who is ‘definitely one of them’ as well as the homophobic chants aimed at such players. What is it about following football that reduces many sensible people to ignorance and tittle-tattle of Neanderthal proportions? And is this not an area in which the game’s governing body should be looking to steer the debate?

After all, if Rugby League can deal maturely with an openly gay player (former New South Wales State of Origin star Ian Roberts came out while still playing way back in 1995) then football should be able to do so in 2010. The end game need not be turning the opening ceremony of the World Cup into a short version of the Pride festival, merely a situation where nearly all of us take our “don’t give a damn” attitude from the office and our homes into our support of the game.

In this writer’s general experience, what has broken down barriers of prejudice and discrimination has been the excellence of individuals in their vocation. The brilliance of black footballers, boxers and athletes helped lead a generation away from suspicion and fear and towards common sense. Those following the arts would find it hard to rationalise any sense of homophobia with their admiration of the work of someone that way inclined. Football surely has a Pyotr Tchaikovsky of its own somewhere both in terms of phenomenal skill at their craft and their current situation of repressing their true selves?

A superstar footballer who felt comfortable telling the media the real reason why he was not ma

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