The sporting side of the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup is only one side of the story. And though every major sporting event — and every country — is rife with flaws, faults, and debates, this tournament hits particularly close to the hearts of many players, among them Germany and Bayern Munich midfielder Leon Goretzka.
Germany and Austria have a long tradition of celebrating Christopher Street Day in commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York — which also led to Pride Month and serves as an enduring reminder that LGBTQ+ rights were hard won, in the recent past, and still require standing for.
Germany was among several countries who declared that they would wear the ‘One Love’ armband at the World Cup, FIFA ultimately intervened on Qatar’s behalf with what were at least interpreted as unspecified threats of sporting sanction. Symbols supporting equality and diversity, even watered-down ones, are not always welcome — to put it mildly.
“As a team, we welcome every sign of diversity and against discrimination. It’s incomprehensible that FIFA is now threatening us with sanctions for wearing the armband, several weeks after they were aware of this action,” Goretzka said for Berliner Zeitung (via @iMiaSanMia). “But it’s also clear that this action cannot be carried out on the back and at the expense of Manuel Neuer and the other captains, as the DFB rightly said.”
The DFB was stuck in a difficult position, the causes of which might be up for debate. But among all the parties that bear responsibility for the decision to hold this World Cup in Qatar, and then to play it there, the professional athletes should be considered least. While many alternatives might be entertaining to consider — major national footballing associations boycotting the tournament entirely, for example, or a whole collection of the top stars taking red cards at their team’s own expense to threaten FIFA with a shambles of a competition — it’s understandable that the DFB would choose not to use their players’ international footballing careers as currency in this fight.
Instead, they’ve opted to be content to let FIFA look like the bad guys. FIFA President Gianni Infantino opened the tournament with an extraordinarily bizarre and poorly-conceived appeal to journalists to not criticize — declaring that he, too, felt (among other things) gay, disabled, and like a migrant worker — while also emphasizing that Europeans had three thousand years’ worth of apologies to make.
That last part may be right, but as Goretzka added: “Picking up on his words, we can only hope that FIFA will not need 3,000 years to campaign effectively for human rights. Unfortunately, I don’t have the feeling that Mr. Infantino understood what the whole discussion is about — and that’s a shame.”
There are many reasons not to take LGBTQ rights for granted. In the United States, for example, gay marriage was guaranteed as a right only in 2015 by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, and the composition of the court — as well as its eagerness to tear after even longer-standing precedents — has changed significantly since then. Progress is slow-rolling, while backsliding can be fast.
Especially when there is no one to stand up and even say something.
To expect players thrust into this unusual situation to speak adroitly and appropriately on sensitive issues is wholly unfair. They do, after all, primarily have their careers to look after. However, some have also chosen to use their platform to speak out against speaking out, and that’s a different matter entirely. Belgium’s Eden Hazard, for example, put Germany on blast after their loss to Japan.
“They would have done better not to do it and to win. We are here to play football, I am not here to send a political message,” Hazard summoned the courage to quip after seeing his side escape with a 1-0 win over Canada.
But declaring what is and is not worth taking a stand over is political, too — and so is relegating fundamental issues of human rights and dignity to the realm of disputable politics.
Wales coach Rob Page was seen in the headlines urging his players to “learn [the] lesson” from Germany’s defeat by not protesting the One Love armband ban — part, presumably, of his efforts at motivating his team prior to their 0-2 defeat to Iran.
But Wales and Belgium, or some other team full of players and coaches who decide this way, may still win the World Cup and therefore feel vindicated. That, perhaps, loudly staying silent is in fact a virtue, or at least worth it — whatever the message that sends to the LGBTQ fans out there.
For Goretzka, this is not enough, in victory or in defeat.
“I’m not a politician, but I’m interested in politics,” he concluded. “And I am particularly interested in things changing for the better. I’m sensitive for when things aren’t fair.”
As The Guardian put it: “some things just matter more.” And: “Germany’s protest will reverberate down the years and generations.” Bravo, Leon, and the rest of this German men’s national team.