Lee Vehit, founder of Inclusive Irons. Image: Supplied
The Qatari authorities may have hoped that the start of the World Cup would see talk of LGBTQ+ rights and migrant workers fall by the wayside. But as the games come thick and fast, these issues are still front and centre.
A peak of eight million viewers watched England win 6-2 against Iran in their group stage opener. It’s fewer than watched England’s 2018 opener in Russia, thanks in part to it taking place on a Monday lunchtime. But fans are still wrestling with the question of what exactly to do.
We spoke to three devoted England fans to find out the approach they’re taking – and how they feel about the tournament.
‘I personally feel extremely conflicted in watching the games’
For Plymouth Argyle fan Tom Carr, the Qatar World Cup has been a difficult prospect.
Carr played in Luton’s academy until he was 16, when he discovered his sexuality and felt he couldn’t continue with football. He has since founded Argyle Pride, the official LGBTQ+ fan group for the club.
He has been watching the tournament, but with mixed feelings. “I personally feel extremely conflicted in watching the games and of course the issues that surround it, but yes. I have been watching a lot of it,” he says.
“I think the coverage has been fair. Alex Scott wearing the OneLove armband on the BBC was welcomed and hearing support from Roy Keane on ITV was also good to hear.
“I never really considered boycotting it as such because I always thought, what’s one small guy in the UK going to achieve? What’s the benefit of boycotting?”
Going out to Qatar wasn’t even an option for Carr, who says: “I feel like you’re supporting a regime who won’t accept you.”
He adds: “When the World Cup comes round it’s a huge occasion, but this time around I just had next to zero enthusiasm around it.”
Carr feels there has been hypocrisy over people’s approach to LGBTQ+ rights. “It feels like the same people who are saying, from an LGBT point of view” ‘If you want to go to Qatar you need to respect their culture’, who are now in uproar about not being able to drink in stadiums,” he says.
‘The stadiums look amazing, but there’s been a consequence to that’
“I want to support England no matter what,” says Aston Villa fan Nilesh Chauhan.
Chauhan is the founder of Villans Together, a fan group for the Birmingham-based club which promotes equality and diversity.
“I’ll be watching England all the way regardless of which country it’s in. Obviously I don’t agree with how it’s been held, and that side of the tournament,” he says.
“The stadiums look amazing, don’t get me wrong, but there’s been a consequence to that as well. And it’s a massive, massive shame to hear what’s happened to the migrant workers there.”
The build up to the tournament was, for Chauhan and many other fans, flat. “It doesn’t come that often, and you want to have that build up and that excitement,” he says. “Because it’s not there, it’s a bit gutting.
“We want that same kind of feeling we had for the Lionesses.”
Despite England and other teams not wearing the One Love armband after a threat from Fifa, Chauhan believes it has had an impact. “It’s great to see the One Love armband be so powerful even when Fifa have banned it,” he says.
Alongside his love for Villa, Chauhan is a passionate England fan, and has been to see England play at Wembley before. “I was going to go to Qatar but the cost of it put me off, so I haven’t,” he says.
“But I do plan to go to the next world cup in the USA, Mexico, and Canada.”
“I’d be lying if I said I’m taking a stance where I’m not watching it – I am. But through gritted teeth,” says West Ham fan Lee Vehit.
“And if anything I’m watching it from afar to see how different this World Cup is going to be.”
Vehit is the founder of Inclusive Irons, a fully ethnically diverse supporters group for West Ham. “I don’t always think boycotting is the right way, I think there’s other ways in which we can show support and show solidarity, and trying to find out what goes on and how we can learn from it,” he says.
He was disappointed by the decision not to wear the One Love armband during England’s opener against Iran. “The first sign of any trouble or conflict we’ve folded and given up, which is disappointing,” Vehit says.
“I feel as if we should have been in a position where we should have stuck to our guns and we haven’t. It’s a huge kick in the teeth for our LGBTQIA allies. I think that’s a shame.”
Like Carr, Vehit feels he wouldn’t have gone to Qatar if he was in a financial position to do so: “I think if I was in a position where I could have travelled and gone, I don’t think I would have gone.
“I get that they have certain beliefs which have to be respected – if people are going over there they have to understand the way the country’s run and do the best they can to respect their wishes. But for me I don’t think I would have gone and been comfortable knowing certainly the history with human rights and stuff like that.”
Tournaments should be an opportunity to learn and soak up other cultures, and to open up and learn about other people, Vehit argues, and says he hopes Qatar hosting the World Cup will be an opportunity for that.
“I’m always a huge believer in that, if you’re trying to educate people about being more inclusive and understanding people from other backgrounds and beliefs, you’ve got to open your mind to what their experiences are,” he says.
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