Even for people who are not particularly excited by football, recent events have yielded some strong reasons to take an interest. Having awarded hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar – neither a particularly welcoming place for gay people – FIFA’s President, Sepp Blatter, has now landed himself in hot water for suggesting that gay people should ‘refrain from having sex’ in Qatar during the 2022 World Cup.

FIFA and the FA have been trying to reduce or eliminate homophobia from football, and their efforts, such as they are, should be welcomed. Still, it hardly seems controversial to suggest that football has a serious problem with homophobia. From boorish fans yelling homophobic chants at players, to Max Clifford’s observation that coming out would end a Premiership footballer’s career, along with casual homophobic comments from top players over the years, football provides plenty of reasons for gay people to give it a wide berth.

[pullquote_right]Football lacks out-and-proud players and remains an avowedly hostile environment for gay people.[/pullquote_right]And yet, of course, there are plenty of gay footballers and gay football fans. When something as personal as sports fandom comes into conflict with that sport’s culture of abuse and bullying, some gay people are able to forgive the problems and concentrate on the game’s many positive aspects. Fundamentally, though, football still lacks out-and-proud players, and, for all the good that gay teams and campaigning groups do, the sport remains an avowedly hostile environment for gay people.

It’s hard to see how FIFA’s recent decisions are going to change that. Two weeks ago, the governing body awarded hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup to Russia, a state whose government is very nearly as psychotic, oppressive and corrupt as its USSR predecessors, and where gay people continue to face repression and reprisals. Minutes later, the body awarded the 2022 competition to Qatar, a country where the ‘crime’ of gay sex risks lashes and incarceration, where domestic abuse of women is overlooked, and where free speech is barely even a dream.

[pullquote_left]FIFA cannot combat internalised homophobia even as its top executive is joking about it.[/pullquote_left]Set against Qatar’s less-than-admirable record on human rights, Blatter’s offhand quip about gay fans is far from absurd. To joke about gay people having to repress their sexuality and identity for the sake of sparing a country’s homophobic sensibilities is to accept that personal freedom is subordinate to state control and religious dogma; or, worse, that FIFA is happier to make a fast buck than to represent the diversity it claims to be passionate about.  It’s an implication that the sport must take very seriously.  It cannot combat internalised homophobia even as its top executive is joking about it.

Qatar is not going to relax its Draconian laws for the sake of a handful of gay fans. Attending the World Cup in 2022 means having to sacrifice personal freedom or face harsh punishment, which is a profoundly unfair condition to impose upon any sporting enthusiast.  FIFA’s hosting decisions were outrageous; it’s clear that the man at the top should be speaking up for the countless gay people who have practically been excluded from attending and enjoying one of the world’s most exciting sporting events.  Blatter should be thoroughly ashamed of his little ‘joke’ – and FIFA should be asking if he is really the right man to challenge football’s enduringly shameful record on gay rights.

Update – 17 December

It seems that Blatter was not immune to criticism, and he has now apologised for his remarks.  The BBC reports that the FIFA boss said: ‘It was not my intention, and never will be my intention, to go into any discrimination. If somebody feels hurt, then I regret [it] and present apologies.’

Is it enough?  Unfortunately it is all too easy for someone to make a throwaway joke that marginalises and insults a minority group, only then to offer a feeble apology.  As welcome as his words may be, whether they represent a real change of heart can only be judged if he backs up his apparent contrition with real efforts to combat homophobia in football.

I’m not holding my breath.

About The Author

Andy Wasley is So So Gay's Executive Editor, and was its Editor-in-Chief from January to November 2011. He is an avid culture vulture, gin-loving wino, injury-prone rugby player, political obsessive and charming geek. He writes for a number of publications, some too boring to mention and often under other people's names. Grr. You can read his inane outpourings on Twitter @andywasley