World Cup 2018: Russia Welcomes All Soccer Fans, as Long as They're Not Gay

In Brazil, the World Cup was a carnival of color, race, nationality and gender. In Russia, LGBT fans cannot feel safe, wave the pride flag or walk hand in hand with their same-sex partners

Heterosexual couple celebrates Russia's victory over Saudi Arabia in the World Cup opening match
Vadim Ghirda/AP

MOSCOW - The investigation launched by FIFA into the homophobic chants of Mexico soccer fans is sheer hypocrisy: Unlike in Rio or even South Africa, at the Russia World Cup, LGBT fans cannot feel safe, wave the pride flag or walk hand in hand with their same-sex partners. And that’s nothing compared to what awaits fans in Qatar.

FIFA prides itself on striving for equality and opposing discrimination on the basis of race, religion or gender, and is remarkably adept at scoring politically correct PR points for it too. So it’s no surprise that it announced disciplinary proceedings regarding the homophobic chants by Mexico fans during the match against Germany last week.

The taunts – especially “puto” – were directed at the rival players. In the game against Germany, they were directed several times at goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. It’s not the first time, or the second, or even the tenth, that Mexicans are being investigated for this. In fact, a complaint was filed with the FIFA disciplinary committee for similar reasons 12 times in the preliminary rounds, in every game they played. The first two times, the Mexicans got an official rebuke, and the next 10 times they were fined increasing amounts. All of the Mexican Football Federation’s appeals to fans to stop this behavior have fallen on deaf ears.

The same cries were heard at Mexico’s games in the 2014 World Cup in Rio, and other Latin American soccer fans followed suit. Argentina and Chile were also punished for fans chanting similar curses during World Cup preliminaries. Mexico was also issued a warning about this during the FIFA Confederations Cup.

The Mexican Football Federation let fans know that it would not lend its support to anyone caught chanting anti-gay slurs. “In Russia, avoid being detained and having your Fan ID taken away. Remember that you represent the best fan base in the world,” it tweeted.

FIFA’s investigation is welcome, but also quite hypocritical, as are the threats to revoke fan IDs. FIFA had no problem awarding the hosting of the World Cup to a country with anti-LGBT laws, a country that explicitly called on gay fans attending the tournament not to make any public display of their sexual orientation. It’s one thing to admonish and penalize Mexican fans who apparently refuse to learn, but it’s quite another to simply ignore the really big problem. In the finest FIFA tradition, the organization makes a show out of addressing the minor issues while disregarding the more important ones.

Homophobia – and this includes actual violence along with homophobic taunts and curses – has always been a part of soccer, and other sports, in many places. Things have been improving, especially in Western Europe and the more liberal parts of the world. But in Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia, the situation is getting worse. Laws were passed in 2013 banning the publicizing of “abnormal relations.” Showing two women kissing or two men holding hands or displaying the pride flag are all prohibited in Russia.

LGBT activist and soccer fan Di Cunningham holding a pride flag in Russia
MARK RALSTON/AFP

Gay men and lesbians, as well as transgender people, are often targets of persecution and violence in the country. In general, the Russians are quite conservative and highly unfriendly toward anything that appears to deviate from “the norm.” This is expressed with hostile looks and with laws, and sometimes with violence; there are violent anti-gay groups, often from various parts of the far-right spectrum, that harass gay people. Sometimes soccer fans are involved too, but not usually.

I know at least one (non-Israeli) journalist who chose not to come to the World Cup for fear of being assaulted. Two leaders of major LGBT organizations in Britain announced that they would come to support the English national team despite Russian laws and homophobia, to show that they’re not afraid, and as an act of protest; at the last minute, one decided to stay home – after receiving dozens of threatening messages from Russian email addresses. It’s hard to estimate how many more fans might have opted to attend the World Cup had it been held in a more gay-friendly, but instead stayed away from Russia out of fear. It could be many thousands.

And those who did come need to keep a low profile – not just because of the advice of the Russian organizing committee, which works closely with FIFA. “I thought about not coming – even though Australia made it to the tournament and I’m a huge Socceroos fan – out of fear of the way gays and lesbians and women in general are treated here,” says one female Australian fan. “Ultimately I chose to come, but I’m keeping a low profile. It’s nothing like it was in Brazil.”

Truly, there is no comparison. Four years ago the World Cup was a celebration at which all were truly welcome. Being LGBT in Rio is the most natural thing in the world, no matter how overt or how “different” you are. Nor was there any problem in Belo Horizonte or Sao Paolo or Brasilia or Fortaleza – on the contrary: In Brazil, the World Cup was a perfect carnival of color and race and nationality and gender. Everyone could feel free to be himself or herself without fear, and with the knowledge that they’d be accepted by both the locals and the tourists. To a lesser degree, that was also the feeling in South Africa; there certainly was no real fear of violence. Here in Russia it’s totally different.

Moscow and St. Petersburg are considered “relatively safe,” but LGBT organizations from Western Europe have warned fans about going to other more provincial cities where the more conservative locals tend to view homosexuality as Western moral decadence and not “normal.” What would be seen as entirely natural in London, Berlin, Amsterdam or Tel Aviv would be viewed as a provocation in places like Samara or Yekaterinburg.

LGBT activist protests President Vladimir Putin's apathy towards attacks against the community in Chechnya
GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

Of course Russia also wants to keep the games free of incident and to project a good image. So anti-LGBT violence is not expected, at least not on a wide scale. Putin’s enforcers will see to it that anyone who tries it will end up like the average hooligan – in jail and physically hurting. But this doesn’t change the hostile and insecure atmosphere for LGBT visitors.

The famous pride flag is an excellent example. In Brazil it was frequently waved in the soccer stadiums. LGBT fans brought it in addition to their national flags and took pride in it just as people took pride in the hundreds of flags from different countries and soccer clubs. After a week here, I’ve yet to see a single pride flag in a stadium or on the street. If there are any around, the number must be minimal. The Russians did advise LGBT visitors to keep a low profile, but they also promised that the law would not be enforced against foreigners waving the pride flag. But the rainbow flag is nowhere to be seen.

Take the Swedish national team, for example. Sweden is a liberal and open country. Swedish human rights and LGBT groups came to the national team’s training camp before the team left for Russia and brought dozens of pride flags for them to take with them to the Swedish camp at the World Cup, to demonstrate openness and also as a kind of quiet protest against the Russian laws. The Swedish Soccer Federation politely declined in order “to avoid trouble.”

Still, things could be a lot worse. Let’s not forget that FIFA awarded Qatar the honor of hosting the next World Cup. Qatar – a nation in which homosexual activity is outlawed and punishable by up to seven years in prison. One more reason, out of many, that the World Cup should not be held there.