World Cup organisers faced growing questions on November 22 about whether the rainbow logo can be displayed at the World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by jail time.
FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino said in his opening press conference “I feel gay” and that “everyone is welcome” at the first World Cup to be held in the Arab world. But the early evidence is that when confronted by the rainbow symbol, or even something resembling it, world football’s governing body Qatari organisers are deeply uncomfortable.
Seven European teams including England and Germany announced on November 21 they were abandoning plans made months ago for their captains to wear a rainbow-themed armband. The armbands have been widely viewed as a symbolic protest against laws in Qatar.
In a joint statement, the teams said they had backed down because “FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions”—in other words, it would direct referees to show their players a yellow card or even send them off the field of play. BBC TV presenter Alex Scott wore the armband anyway as she introduced coverage of the match from the pitch.
Germany’s football association (DFB) said it was examining if FIFA’s threat to punish players who wear the “OneLove” armband was legal. “FIFA banned us from showing a sign for diversity and human rights. They combined this with massive threats of sports sanctions without specifying what these would be,” DFB spokesman Steffen Simon told AFP’s sports subsidiary SID. “The DFB is checking if this action by FIFA is legal,” he added.
On November 22, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also criticised a decision by FIFA to impose “sporting sanctions” on players wearing rainbow armbands. “It’s always concerning from my perspective when we see any restrictions on freedom of expression; it’s especially so when the expression is for diversity and for inclusion,” Blinken said at a news conference alongside Qatar’s foreign minister in the capital, Doha, when asked whether he supported the move by world soccer’s governing body.
Litany of U-turns
Qatari officials hoped the event would showcase a sleek, modern Doha—a budding regional hub for business, tourism, and diplomacy. And since winning the bid to host it 12 years ago, they promised to welcome and ensure the safety of different nationalities, religions, and sexual orientations, in line with FIFA rules. But they weren’t expecting the avalanche of scrutiny that followed.
A U-turn on allowing beer sales in stadiums on November 18 only fuelled concerns that authorities will be more strict about enforcing social codes than they had said they would be. Representatives for the main Qatari organizing committee and the Qatari government didn’t immediately provide comment.
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The issue of rainbow flags is particularly sensitive. Over the past two years, local organisers have repeatedly promised they would be tolerated in stadiums, in line with FIFA rules promoting tolerance and inclusion. But officials have given conflicting statements about how they would respond to displays of support for LGBTQ rights outside the venues.
‘Take the hat off’
The sensitivity about the issue is not limited to the players at the Qatar World Cup. At stadiums, security staff have ordered spectators to remove items of clothing featuring the rainbow logo.
Justin Martin, an associate professor who teaches journalism at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, said the rainbow-colored flag he was carrying on the metro was not much larger than his hand. He said he was verbally harassed by Arabic-speaking fans, including some wearing shirts identifying them as World Cup volunteers. One of them shoved him into a door.
“I’ve been writing and tweeting about Qatar for more than 10 years, mostly good things but no shortage of criticism as well,” including about LGBTQ issues, Martin said. “The responses that I get on Twitter from some of my followers in Qatar are not always pleasant but I’ve never felt physically threatened.” By the time Martin arrived at the stadium, he said he’d hidden the flag in his bag.
Other people reported difficulties when trying to enter the event. Laura McAllister, a former captain of Wales’ women’s team, was confronted by security guards at her country’s match against the USA on November 21 and ordered to remove her rainbow-coloured bucket hat.
The rainbow version of Welsh fans’ apparel shows support for the LGBTQ community. “I pointed out that FIFA had made lots of comments about supporting LGBT rights in this tournament, and said to them that coming from a nation where we’re very passionate about equality for all people, I wasn’t going to take my hat off,” McAllister told Britain’s ITV. “They were insistent that unless I took the hat off we weren’t actually allowed to come into the stadium.”
She said she had achieved a “small moral victory” by managing to sneak the hat through security in her handbag.
The Welsh Football Association (WFA) said several members of Rainbow Wall, Wales LGBTQ supporters’ group, had also been told they could not wear the hats. The WFA said it was “extremely disappointed” and would take up the issue with FIFA. Asked about the incident involving Welsh fans by AFP, FIFA did not reply.
At the same match, American journalist Grant Wahl tweeted that he had been told he must remove his t-shirt because it featured a rainbow logo. He said he was detained for 25 minutes but was eventually allowed to enter the stadium.
Animosity towards LGBTQ symbols isn’t universal in Qatar. Over the past year, authorities have been both criticised and praised at home for censoring a same-sex kiss in the children’s movie Lightyear and for seizing rainbow-coloured children’s toys that “go against Islamic values.”
Enforcement also varies. LGTBQ people within the white-collar expatriate community—especially from places like Europe, the US, and Australia—date and some live together, discreetly.
Qataris and other foreigners report less tolerance. Human Rights Watch says it spoke to six who were harassed, detained, and even beaten by a Qatari security group as recently as September, though the government has disputed some of its accusations. The arrival of more fans in Doha for four group-stage matches per day may only exacerbate these internal tensions.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said while it could not comment on the reports of incidents regarding spectators’ clothing, it regretted that the Qatar World Cup was not a forum for open expression. “Sport can and should be used to combat all forms of discrimination, and more generally social exclusion, violence, inequality, racism and xenophobia,” a spokeswoman said.
(with agency inputs from AFP and Bloomberg)