Editor’s Note: A version of this article appears in Friday’s edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
“I’m a man and I love men. I do – please don’t be shocked – have sex with other men. This is normal. So please get used to it, or stay out of football.”
Dario Minden was a relatively unknown German football fan before a video of a powerful speech he made was widely shared on social media in September.
For the majority of the 15-minute talk he spoke in his native German before switching to English, a change he deliberately made, he says, for impact. He wanted the world to hear.
Looking directly at Qatar’s ambassador to Germany, Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Thani, in a room full of dignitaries and sponsors at a human rights conference in Frankfurt, hosted by the German Football Association, he said his impactful words. Sitting in the front row, the camera pans briefly to al-Thani and shows him looking at and listening to Minden.
“Football is for everyone,” Minden continued. “It doesn’t matter if you’re lesbian, if you’re gay, it’s for everyone. For the boys, for the girls and for everyone in between … The rule that football is for everyone is so important. We cannot allow you to break it no matter how rich you are. You are more than welcome to join the international football community and, also, of course, to host a big tournament. But in sports, it is how it is. You have to accept the rules.”
When Minden finishes, a sprinkling of applause can be heard from some members of the audience.
That he loves men and has sex with men isn’t an issue in his homeland, but it is in Qatar, a country which from Sunday will be hosting the month-long World Cup, one of sport’s biggest and most lucrative events.
As the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East, it is undoubtedly a historic event, but it is also one clouded by controversy, from the death of migrant workers and the conditions many have endured as the Gulf state prepared for the tournament, to LGBTQ and women’s rights.
Homosexuality in Qatar is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison. A report from Human Rights Watch, published last month, documented cases as recently as September of Qatari security forces arbitrarily arresting LGBT people and subjecting them to “ill-treatment in detention.”
Speaking to CNN, Minden said he would not be going to Qatar and would not be watching the competition on television.
“When we talk about the situation for the LGBTQ+ rights, we mean not only the football tourists, but also the situation before, and especially after, the World Cup,” he said.
After the conference, Minden said he spoke privately with the ambassador who he said told him all were welcome to Qatar. But Minden told CNN: “It’s not safe and it’s not right.”
A Qatar government official told CNN in a statement that the World Cup host was an inclusive country. “Everyone is welcome in Qatar,” the statement read, adding: “Our track record has shown that we have warmly welcomed all people regardless of background.”
Measures were being implemented to ensure discrimination of any kind did not happen, such as human rights training sessions with public and private security forces, and the enacting of legal provisions for the protection of everyone, according to FIFA.
A statement sent to CNN on behalf of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) which, since its formation in 2011, has been responsible for overseeing the infrastructure projects and planning for the World Cup, said it was committed to “an inclusive and discriminatory-free” World Cup, pointing to the fact that the country had, it said, hosted hundreds of international and regional sporting events since being awarded the World Cup in 2010.
“There has never been an issue and every event has been delivered safely,” the statement read.
“Everyone is welcome in Qatar, but we are a conservative country and any public display of affection, regardless of orientation, is frowned upon. We simply ask for people to respect our culture.”
But there have been mixed messages with a World Cup ambassador and former footballer Khalid Salman saying earlier this month that homosexuality was “damage in the mind,” in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF.
When asked by CNN for its advice to any members of the LGBTQ community traveling to Qatar, FIFA referred to a recent public statement made by Fatma Samoura, the the governing body’s secretary general, who said: “No matter your race, your religion, your social and sexual orientation, you are most welcome, and Qataris are ready to receive you with the best hospitality that you can imagine.”
But for Englishman Rob Sanderson the respecting of cultures is a “two-way street.”
Sanderson is secretary of Pride in Football, a network of UK LGBTQ fan groups and one of the supporter groups which joined forces in an open letter to condemn both FIFA and the Supreme Committee, refuting the world governing body and Qatar’s claims that it would be a World Cup for all.
He is a regular at England internationals and was once the victim of a homophobic assault, he says, at Wembley four years ago, ahead of England’s match against Spain in 2018, when he had an altercation with another fan. The incident was reported to the police and investigated, he says, but there was “insufficient evidence” to proceed, he says. But, largely, he has felt accepted at England matches, where he and his friends hold pride flags aloft celebrating their community and the team.
However, he will not be going to Qatar and says if England were to win the tournament, it would be a tarnished trophy.
“I don’t feel comfortable traveling out to Qatar and being in any way visible because if I’m visibly showing I’m an LGBT+ football fan, all I’m doing is drawing a target on the back of a local who is anything other than hostile towards me,” the 34-year-old told CNN.
“I don’t feel comfortable being used as an excuse for any hostility that would be around after the tournament. It doesn’t sit right with me.”
Qatar isn’t the first controversial host of a big sporting event, or even a FIFA World Cup. The last edition was held in Russia, a country which introduced laws in 2013 which banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.”
In the build-up to the 2018 tournament, the UK Foreign Office warned of a “heightened risks” to members of the LGBT community traveling to Russia.
But while some Pride in Football members went to Russia, Sanderson says, feeling that it was safe as Russian society had previously accepted, in the post-Soviet and pre-Putin era, same-sex relationships, none of its members are going to Qatar. “It’s a totally different environment,” he said.
“They said ‘everyone’s welcome’ but they’ve signed that line off by saying ‘you must respect our culture’.”
It has been widely reported that FIFA has urged nations participating in the World Cup to focus on football when the tournament kicks off on Sunday.
FIFA confirmed to CNN that a letter signed by FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Samoura was sent out to the 32 participating nations but would not divulge the contents.
A joint statement issued earlier this month by fan groups Pride in Football, The Rainbow Wall and Three Lions Pride said: “Let’s be clear, talking about human rights is neither ideological nor political. It is simply asking for decency and the ability for people to be able to watch their teams without fear of abuse.”
A number of European federations also issued a statement saying they would continue to campaign at the tournament on human rights issues and compensation for migrant workers.
Gareth Bale, once the world’s most expensive footballer and Wales captain, will wear a OneLove armband during matches in Qatar in support of a season-long campaign which promotes diversity and inclusion. Wales is one of eight participating European countries at the World Cup supporting the initiative.
Speaking to reporters before traveling to Qatar, the former Real Madrid player said: “We can shed a light on the problems that are going on.”
However, Hugo Lloris, captain of France, another team participating in the OneLove campaign, said on Monday he had to “show respect” to Qatar’s culture when asked by reporters about wearing a rainbow-colored armband.
“In France, when we welcome foreigners, we often want them to play by our rules and respect our culture – and I will do the same when I go to Qatar,” he said.
England flew into Qatar on Tuesday on a plane called “Rain Bow” and the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) is displaying a rainbow logo at the team’s training facility in Doha. Talking to reporters, head coach Gregg Berhalter said: “We recognize that Qatar has made strides and there has been a ton of progress, but there’s some work still to do.”
The nearer we get to the kick-off of the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador on November 20, the louder the dissenting voices are becoming and the more visible the signs of support for LGBTQ issues.
The World Cup, like the Olympics, puts the host country under a global spotlight. Usually, most controversies are forgotten once the sport starts, but such has been the intensity of focus on Qatar’s human rights record that it would be astonishing if all were forgotten by kickoff on Sunday. It is unlikely that headlines over the next month will solely be about football.