Football was coming alive in Qatar, as only football can. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Japan all causing upsets shows why fans love football. The unpredictability of a 90-minute game is part of the beauty of football, for me; it’s why I get nervous going to watch a match. This nervous tension was with me as I approached the Al Bayt Stadium to watch England vs USA. A win would see England guarantee themselves a Round of 16 place and anything else meant the group was still wide open. An uninspiring England performance and a 0-0 draw means it’s all to play for in the final group game against Wales.
My nervous energy for the match was overwhelmed prior to kick off as the security forces denied access to my three lions rainbow flag, despite FIFA’s constant assurances that the colourful rallying sign of the gay community would be accepted at the Qatar World Cup. It took me around 90 minutes to get a resolution and finally be allowed in the game. The whole incident seemed to show the lack of clarity and organisation that I’ve noticed in the run-up to, and, at the start of the tournament.
To begin with I got through security with no problem, the police looked at the flag, said ‘yes, it’s fine’, and with a sense of relief I exited the security zone and waited for my match-day companions to join me. However, as we were about to walk to the stadium itself the police came out of the security zone and asked me to return for my flag to be examined again. I complied and showed the flag once more. I was then advised that they wanted to take the flag to be measured. I waited for several minutes and was being to wonder if I would see my ‘Proud Ally’ flag again. Eventually the police officer returned, and the following conversation ensued:
Officer: “The flag is not allowed.”
Me: “But the flag is not too big.”
Officer: You know why the flag is not allowed.”
Me: “But the size is within what FIFA said was OK.”
Office: “It is not permitted because of the colours.”
Me: “FIFA said that rainbow flags were permitted.”
Office: “No, they are permitted, t-shirts and hats are permitted but not flags.”
I remained quiet and respectful and stated my belief that the flag should be allowed in the stadium. Another police officer then offered to take a photo and check the decision they had made. Whilst I was waiting for this decision several police officers came from a side room and wanted to take me away from the open area of the security area. This was the most anxious moment for me, I really didn’t want to go out of sight of my friends who were waiting patiently for me outside the security area. Fortunately, two other officers explained that they were in conversation with more senior officers to get clarity on the flag and I was able to stay in public view. Sadly, the only clarity they got was that the flag was denied access and my only options was to have the flag seized or leave it in the restricted items area. I then left the security area to keep my flag and see if I could get a positive resolution.
I have a friend who is volunteering with the FIFA Human Rights team so I messaged them to see if there was anyone at the stadium who could help and rectify the mistake in policy application by the security forces. Thus began a long wait to with messages going back and forth to ensure the flag was the right size and was not offensive. During this time I was approached by the police and advised it would be best for me to put the flag in the restricted items area. I advised them I was hoping for someone to come and resolve the situation for me before the match started. There was just a shrug of the shoulders, and I was told again the flag was not permitted.
A sense of relief flowed over me when Steve, a representative from FIFA Human Rights team, arrived. There were no guarantees at this point. Following some toing and froing, phone calls, WhatsApp messages to the match-day command centre, I got the green light to enter the stadium.
The promise that that everyone is welcome at the Qatar World Cup, and FIFA’s directive that rainbow flags and clothing items are acceptable seems to have been lost. This situation is worrying so early on in tournament. I was fortunate knowing who to contact and how to escalate, otherwise the flag would have been banned from the stadium. The flag is a powerful symbol representing one aspect of human rights. FIFA’s failure to live up to its own human rights policy surely can’t be sustainable. At some point FIFA must recognise that football is not its own microculture but rather it is a microcosm of society and not divorced from the reality of the political world.
FIFA’s mantra is that everyone is welcome at the World Cup, but there was never any substance to that statement. As a straight male I have not felt comfortable entering the stadiums or the fan festival and I am struggling to see how a person from the gay community would cope being in this environment.