Perfect guests or human rights activists? Why England can never win this World Cup

    Gareth Southgate and his team in Qatar
    Should the England team be using the World Cup as an opportunity to raise awareness? (PIcture: Getty /Reuters/EPA/AP)

    When the FIFA President Gianni Infantino invited the World Cup competing teams to use their time in Qatar to ‘focus on the football’, some felt it was tantamount to fighting talk.

    However, his attempt to shut down the major talking point ahead of the tournament in Qatar – human rights – was easily swerved. 

    ‘We believe in the power of football to make further positive and credible contributions to progressive sustainable change in the world,’ the football associations of England, Wales and seven other European nations retorted. 

    Their statement, given earlier this month ahead of the tournament, was a not-so-veiled criticism of both FIFA and its president, after he had written to the chiefs of all 32 teams urging them not to allow the game to be ‘dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.’

    Instead, the house guests-in-waiting opted to send a reminder that neither FIFA nor the hosts should get to call the tune. 

    You need only look back at the last World Cup for why.

    Four years ago in Russia, world football’s governing body was skipping to a different beat. It was a strong supporter of Diversity House, a space and a project dedicated to discussions about tackling all forms of discrimination. FIFA’s head of diversity Federico Addiechi was among the VIPs at its opening and declared himself ‘delighted’ to see the initiative set up by the Fare network.

    The Moscow hub quickly became a valued meeting point during the tournament, not least for the Russian LGBT Sport Federation whose ‘Football For All’ festival launch at Diversity House was also attended in person by Addiechi.

    Elena Lipilina was a Federation member back then; she is now its President. Before 2018, the organisation’s events were frequently disrupted by the Russian authorities and attacked by anti-LGBTQ+ groups. Yet for a month that summer, they got a glimpse of what life could be like.

    ‘We were invited to the opening game, we were even able to fly the rainbow flag there,’ recalls Lipilina. Pictures of her predecessor, Alexander Agapov, waving the Pride flag in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium went around the world.

    ‘It was some sort of meta reality. It felt like we were living in a “normal” society where we would be accepted and we shouldn’t expect the police to come storming the doors.’

    However, the Federation’s dreams were dashed. ‘The World Cup gave us false hope that things could be different,’ Lipilina tells ‘As soon as it finished, everything went back to “not normal”.

    Elena Lipilina speaking at an event
    Elena Lipilina was left devastated that the World Cup had given her false hope for a brighter future (Picture: Supplied)

    ‘The attacks intensified on the community, within our events and outside. Organisations that we are friends with had their events attacked when we were there.’

    Lipilina has since lost contact with several colleagues, including Agapov. ‘It’s really not clear to us at this point if he’s safe. It’s worrying.’

    Last month, the findings of a new study were published, showing that  international sporting events tend to trigger even greater repression when they are held in autocracies.

    The research, led by Dr Adam Scharpf of the University of Copenhagen, looked at the award of the Olympics, World Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and Copa America tournaments going back to the 1940s, and found ‘a systemic connection’ between host nations that were dictatorships and the persecution of their political opponents.

    Joe White, from England’s LGBTQ+ supporters’ group Three Lions Pride, visited Diversity House in 2018 alongside co-founder Di Cunningham during their trip around Russia following England to the semi-finals. 

    Joe White and Di Cunningham with their Three Lions Pride
    Joe White and Di Cunningham have opted not to attend Qatar during this World Cup (Picture: Supplied)

    As well as supporting the team, Joe says they went to the World Cup ‘to be visible and have conversations’, having been encouraged to do so by many LGBTQ+ Russians.

    Similar requests from LGBTQ+ Qataris have been few and far between, which is one reason why Three Lions Pride will not be at this World Cup.

    ‘Having a Diversity House in somewhere like Qatar would be a security risk for local voices,’ White explains. ‘It’s easily monitored and that would be even more of a concern than it was in Russia. We don’t want to damage the local community.’

    One Moscow memory in particular stands out. ‘Di and I were invited to do a chat one night at Diversity House. There was an odd vehicle parked outside, like an old school bus. We mentioned it as we entered and Alexander said to us, “oh no, that’ll be secret services”. They were waiting to see if anyone who looked under 18 went in. And if they thought there was, they’d have come in too.’

    Sophie Cook – the first trans woman to work in the Premier League – also accepted an invitation to speak at a World Cup 2018 event in Russia, with FIFA and the British Embassy assisting on travel costs.

    Sophie Cook sat in a football stadium
    Sophie Cook decided to turn down an all-expenses paid trip to the World Cup (Picture: Supplied)

    This year, she had the opportunity to go to Qatar under the Fan Leader Network programme which would have meant an all-expenses-paid trip, but on the day Human Rights Watch published a report about the abuse and arrests of six anonymous LGBT+ Qataris – four of whom were trans women – she made the decision to decline the offer.

    ‘If we can’t have dialogue with people on the ground that are struggling with the rules that they have over there, then what are we doing? Are we just going on a jolly?,’ she tells

    ‘For me, there needs to be a purpose to the trip and it’s not just to watch football and have a good time in the sun.

    ‘There’s a picture of me in Red Square with the trans pride flag. But Qataris don’t have the freedom to make those kinds of statements. And it’s not just LGBT+ rights, it’s the rights of all the workers that have struggled in the building of those stadiums.’

    As with Three Lions Pride, no members of the Welsh equivalent, The Rainbow Wall, will go to the World Cup, either. Alongside Pride in Football – the umbrella group for LGBT+ fans groups – they have launched a campaign called No Pride Without All, a response to the official tournament slogan ‘Now is All’. Instead of the colourful rainbow flag, a grayscale version is being used to reflect the limits on freedom of expression in Qatar.

    Campaign T-shirts are being sold by the charity Love Football, Hate Racism and Cunningham hopes some travelling fans will wear them at the World Cup in a show of allyship.

    Sophie Cook in Russia with the Trans pride flag
    Sophie could not justify heading to Qatar with its poor human rights record (Supplied)

    ‘It sends a message that we have support and that people wish we could be there with them. That’s a powerful message,’ she says.

     ‘Those fans can also have conversations about the campaign, and show solidarity.’

    Three Lions Pride have also asked The FA to amplify relevant voices from the Gulf region as much as possible. There is only one publicly out gay Qatari – Dr Nas Mohamed, who now lives in San Francisco after being granted asylum in the US. But through Dr Mohamed, other LGBTQ+ people from Qatar are trying to speak out.

    But who else should be highlighting human rights? Cook feels that if FIFA truly believes in the concept of Diversity House, as it claimed to do four years ago, it should be compensating for the absence of such a space at this World Cup. 

    She is also looking to the national FAs and to politicians to do more – but no added pressure, she feels, should be put on those on the pitch.

    For me, it lies squarely at the feet of FIFA – this is a problem of their own creation

    ‘It would have been great to see England and Wales boycott this World Cup but realistically, I don’t think that that was a possibility,’ she admits. ‘It would have taken more than that for any impact. Maybe if a couple of countries had started a boycott, other countries would have followed – but I don’t think that you’re ever going to get that sort of commitment from, unfortunately, a national FA.

    ‘Players have a job to do for their country. It’s great that some will be making protests but it’s not their responsibility. For me, it lies squarely at the feet of FIFA – this is a problem of their own creation.’

    She describes the #OneLove anti-discrimination armband that will be worn by the captains of eight European teams as ‘a welcome gesture’ but one that is insufficient for those suffering under Qatar’s strict anti-LGBT+ laws.

    She adds: ‘It would have been nice if the World Cup was somewhere where everyone could have celebrated the fact their nation was playing, rather than somewhere where a large proportion of fans feel very uncomfortable.’ 

    Three Lions Pride are equally reluctant to ask England and Wales players to be activists as well as athletes, but with FIFA and Infantino showing a lack of leadership on the issue of human rights, the group is hoping for help from World Cup watchers with position and influence. 

    The majority of supporters echo this view. A survey of over 30,000 fans from 190 countries conducted by Forza Football and Blanksport in October found that 81% believed football personalities should use their platforms to raise awareness of human rights.

    Instead, one of the biggest footballing names in the world is currently being called out for accepting a lucrative ambassadorial role with the host nation.

    Joe Lycett threatens to shred £10k unless Beckham quits Qatar deal
    Joe Lycett is threatening to shred £10,000 unless Beckham walks away from his lucrative brand deal (Picture: Twitter / Joe Lycett)

    ‘It’s unfortunate that Beckham is involved in the way that he is because as Joe Lycett put it, he has always been a gay icon,’ says Cook. ‘I think that retrospectively he might look at what he’s done and think that maybe it was a mistake.’

    Meanwhile, Cunningham – who made a point of criticising Beckham at a Sports and Rights Alliance webinar on Qatar 2022 – feels that it’s hugely important to hear ‘allied voices’ from players and managers. 

    ‘Jordan Henderson and Gareth Southgate have both been vocal critics and the statement from the Australian squad was good to hear,’ she explains. ‘But these voices are filling a void right now that FIFA and other governing bodies have left through indifference, lack of courage and focus on finance at whatever cost.’  

    Lipilina says there are few examples of solidarity with minorities in the Russian game and certainly not in support of LGBTQ+ people. ‘Football is too much of a sacred cow, and an uber masculine space,’ she says.

    In the case of Qatar, she isn’t convinced it would work either. ‘It’s the same narrative there as it is here – whatever statements are made, it’s all part of the ‘evil West agenda’. And there’s so much resistance to that.

    ‘The feeling is, “you are the guests, we are the hosts and you should obey the house rules”. It’s hard to argue with that, and I come from a country where this is enforced.

    Activists protest against the World Cup which starts Sunday in Qatar, and called for a boycott in a demonstration outside the Qatar Embassy in Paris, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. The protesters honored migrant workers who died during construction work for the tournament, and decried rights violations in Qatar. Qatar denies abuses. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
    C (Picture: AP Photo/Francois Mori)

    ‘I’ve been living under those risks for so long and I wouldn’t want to endanger anyone.’

    So what course of action is worth taking? ‘I can’t speak on behalf of Qataris, but I feel in such a situation, you should try to help those who want to leave,’ Lipilina adds. ‘Asking for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is far from easy but if that’s the only way to feel safe, that means leaving. 

    ‘Pushing against a government that doesn’t want to accept only creates additional resistance and that frustration is then passed on to their own population. I know that all too well. It’s like a regular domestic abuse situation.’ 

    The World Cup in Russia at least offered some respite and although it failed to spark a revolution, Lipilina has no regrets about joining the World Cup party. 

    One of her favourite memories from 2018 was in her hometown of Kaliningrad, after Switzerland beat Serbia. ‘The city felt jubilant and free, filled with happy people.

    ‘I met a person from Qatar there. We had a chat – he was so nice. I felt that I lived in a world where anything was possible.

    ‘We’re getting back to this false hope. But at least it gives people something they haven’t had before.’

    MORE : Chris Kamara voices concern over Qatar World Cup amid human rights backlash: ‘You can’t ignore what’s happened’

    MORE : Where to buy England home and away World Cup kits and how much they cost

    MORE : Joe Lycett still chasing David Beckham over plan to shred £10,000 if he doesn’t axe Qatar ambassadorship: ‘Am I to expect silence?’


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