‘There’s so many having major moral thoughts’: England fans conflicted over Qatar World Cup

Concern over host country’s human rights record and stance on gay rights finds some boycotting tournament, while others plan to attend but ‘speak their mind’

Andy Payne has supported England at every World Cup bar one for the past 40 years – but when it was announced that Qatar would host in 2022, he hesitated. “There’s so many people, including me, quite rightly having major moral thoughts on all this,” he says.

In the end, he and his wife, Kirsty, decided to go – but his usual T-shirt and shorts will be adorned with a bright rainbow armband, while Kirsty will wear a large rainbow hat.

“It’s a World Cup and England are there so we will go out, but wearing as much rainbow gear as we possibly can so we can do our piece to represent England and progress in the world,” he says.

Andy Payne wearing his rainbow armband
Andy Payne wearing his rainbow armband. Photograph: Andy Payne

Before the World Cup kicks off next Sunday, many fans concerned about Qatar’s human rights record and stance on LGBTQ+ rights are feeling conflicted, with some deciding to boycott the event, bars choosing not to show games and sponsors hiding.

The former Bayern Munich and Germany player Philipp Lahm said he would not attend the tournament, while the Lionesses centre-back Lotte Wubben-Moy said she would not be watching. Barcelona and Paris are among multiple European cities that will not show World Cup matches in public places or set up “fan zones”. Giant banners declaring “Boycott Qatar 2022” have been a familiar sight at European grounds for months.

Hosting the World Cup has put an unprecedented spotlight on Qatar’s human rights record. Reports suggest migrant workers who constructed stadiums endured “persistent and widespread labour rights violations”. According to Guardian analysis, about 6,500 migrant workers have died since Fifa members voted in 2010 to award the 2022 tournament to the Gulf state.

A recent survey found six out of 10 British people believe Qatar’s stance on gay rights – homosexuality is illegal, attracting punishments of up to seven years in prison – should have barred it from hosting. This week an ambassador for the tournament described homosexuality as “damage in the mind”.

It was a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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On Wednesday Di Cunningham, the co-founder of the Three Lions Pride group, said no one from the England-based group would go to Qatar because there was “no sign … of any appetite to relax or review the toxic environment there is for LGBTQ+ and other minority groups”.

Di Cunningham, the co-founder of the Three Lions Pride group and LGBTQ+ rights campaigner,
Di Cunningham, the co-founder of the Three Lions Pride group and LGBTQ+ rights campaigner, said no one from the group would be travelling to Qatar. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Sandra Tyrie, the manager of the Liverpool Arms pub in Chester, said it had decided not to show any matches – and since the decision others have followed suit. “We spoke to our customers and we just felt promoting it wasn’t doing any good for our community,” she says. “We just wanted to use the small voice we’ve got to speak out.”

But despite pleas to all competing nations from the president of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, to “let football take the stage” in Qatar, and keep quiet about politics – many are refusing to toe the line.

On Thursday, the England manager, Gareth Southgate, said it was “highly unlikely” England would comply, while the Football Association has announced the England captain, Harry Kane, will wear a OneLove armband in Qatar. “We stand for inclusivity, and we’re very, very strong on that,” said Southgate.

Others who will travel to the country are deciding to use the opportunity to try to open debate in a place where freedom of speech is stymied. The BBC pundit and former footballer Pat Nevin said like others travelling to cover the tournament he would keep his “eyes and ears open”, adding: “Those of us who come from countries with allegedly free speech, we will not be quiet and we will say what we feel.”

Billy Grant, the co-presenter of Brentford FC’s Beesotted podcast and a travelling England fan since 1990, said many supporters were staying at home. Some were doing so because of costs and the timing of the tournament, which was rescheduled for winter to avoid Qatar’s overwhelming summer heat, others such as a gay friend from America said they did not feel safe.

Gareth Southgate announces the England World Cup 2022 squad
The England manager, Gareth Southgate, said it was ‘highly unlikely’ his side would keep quiet about Qatar’s human rights record. Photograph: Barrington Coombs/Getty Images

But Grant said the tournament was also an opportunity for cultural exchange. “When you start talking with locals you have more of an opportunity to change things than anybody can do at home,” he says. “We know this is sports washing – but while switching off the football and watching Coronation Street might make you feel better, it’s not going to change anything.”

Payne agrees, and says many fans who are travelling will – respectfully – be speaking their minds, maybe even from the stands. His ambition is to start a new chant, based on the chorus of the 1978 song by the Tom Robinson Band: (Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay. “If I can get some of the boys to start it, then you never know if it will catch on,” he says. “Watch and listen to this space.”


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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