By Dan Woog
When the World Cup kicks off in Qatar in 2022 there will be no alcohol.
There will also be few gay people in the stands, watching the most popular sports event on the planet.
FIFA – soccer’s world governing body – stunned the world late last year with the announcement that the quadrennial tournament heads for the first time to the Middle East. It was a coup for Sepp Blatter. FIFA’s president already helped steer the 2010 World Cup to South Africa, a first for the continent.
The same day he announced Qatar for 2022, he said that Russia would host the 2018 event. That too was a first. Some observers thought Blatter, who wields great influence over the politicized voting for host nations, was angling for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Blatter’s statement a few days later torpedoed any hope for such an award. Instead, it set off a human rights firestorm that reached from Qatar to FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, to England and the U.S. – anywhere on the globe where soccer is played.
In other words, everywhere.
Immediately following Blatter’s announcement about Qatar, questions arose. How can games be played in heat that reaches 125 degrees? What will happen when hard-drinking fans arrive in a country where public consumption of alcohol is forbidden?
And how can LGBT fans travel to a nation where homosexuality is strictly forbidden?
Asked at a news conference if he foresaw any cultural problems, the 74-year-old Blatter replied, “I’d say they (gay fans) should refrain from any sexual activities.”
His tone was jocular. He then turned serious, saying simply he was sure there would be no problems.
A FIFA spokesman said there would be no further comment.
Howls of indignation arose from gay and straight organizations – sports-minded, and not.
Former NBA basketball star John Amaechi – raised in England, the birthplace of soccer – was among the first to respond.
He said, “It’s absurd. It’s not about people having sex in public and being sanctioned for it; it’s the fact that Qatar was one of 79 countries to sanction executing gays at the United Nations.
“FIFA has endorsed the marginalization of LGBT people around the world. Anything less than a full reversal of his position is unacceptable… . If sport cannot serve to change society, even temporarily during the duration of an event like the World Cup that invites the world to participate, then it is little more than grown men chasing a ball and we should treat it as such.”
Amaechi did not limit his criticism to Blatter. Referring to giggling by reporters when the gay question was asked, the basketball player said, “It is the most childish response I could imagine. This does make it harder for footballers that are gay, but let’s not limit this. This story is big enough, his influence is big enough, to impact young people in school, people in workplaces, anybody who is perceived to be gay or is gay.”
Blatter’s comments, Amaechi said, underscore that “the seat of power, straight white men” are “very, very clearly uncomfortable with this issue and certainly not interested in taking it seriously.”
Kick It Out, an organization combating racism in soccer, spoke out against Blatter’s remarks too.Chairman Herman Ouseley said, “It was all frivolity and laughter, but it’s a serious business. People’s existence he has ridiculed.
“We can’t have that from the top of the world governing body. You’ve got to show leadership because you’ve got to influence the standards of behavior required and then you’ve got to enforce it when there’s a failure.”
Juriv Lavrikovs, communications director at the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, said simply, “This is not a joke. This is a matter of life and death to people.”
Qatar enforces its anti-sodomy laws strictly. An American serving a six-month sentence for homosexuality also received 90 lashes.
Gay Football Supporters Network chair Chris Basiurski noted, “”Many LGBT people live in countries where they would face execution or imprisonment if discovered. These people deserve our help, our respect and our support.”
“They, like the rest of us, do not deserve to be laughed at… . Mr. Blatter is naive to think that by taking the beautiful game to Qatar, it will bring an end to discrimination in the Middle East.
“He says that football is ‘everything for everyone,’ but he has not yet explained just how FIFA is going to ensure that LGBT football players and supporters will be welcome in Qatar.”
Blatter later condemned discrimination “against any human beings be it on this side or that side, be it left, right or whatever.” He did not mention anti-gay discrimination specifically.
The powerful chairman still has his job. And the World Cup is still headed to Qatar.