Written by Gabriel Knott-Fayle, Postdoctoral Scholar of Masculinities Studies in Education, University of Calgary
There is a familiar adage reverberating in the stands at the 2022 men’s FIFA World Cup tournament suggesting that winning is really all that matters. But athlete activism and solidarity reflect a growing trend among athletes publicly displaying social responsibility both on and off the pitch.
FIFA, however, remains adamantly opposed to sport activism entering the field. The Danish men’s soccer team message of “Human Rights for All,” for example, is a political statement contravening FIFA regulations, according to the sporting body.
Similarly, hours before England’s opening match, it was announced that England captain Harry Kane and the seven other European teams would contravene FIFA regulations if they wore a “One Love” armband. FIFA stated that the players would be cautioned for any political statement.
These planned protests and the subsequent rowing back on them is indicative of a tension around social activism and allyship in men’s soccer — particularly in matters of sex, gender and sexuality.
Men’s sport and social activism
Sport has a long history of political activism. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics in support of civil rights movements in the U.S. and around the world. Fast forward to 2016 and Colin Kaepernick knelt during the U.S. national anthem protesting police brutality and racial inequality.
In men’s soccer, teams knelt in support of Black Lives Matter movements which grew following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. On matters of racial inequality, men’s sport and soccer have offered moments of symbolic support.
On matters of gender and sexual diversity, Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces Campaign has garnered some traction in the English Premier League. In Canada, the Pride Tape Campaign has also demonstrated the willingness of some hockey players to show support for inclusive sporting environments.
This World Cup, Canada competes on soccer’s biggest stage for the first time in 36 years. Canada Soccer has recently come under fire for a lack of action on issues of human rights. On the eve of the tournament, Canada Soccer announced a partnership with You Can Play — a group dedicated to tackling homophobia in sport.
Earl Cochrane, the secretary-general of Canada Soccer, said, “no matter your sexual orientation, gender identity, or who you choose to love, you have a place in this game.”
However, men’s soccer has had a problem with allyship long before Qatar was awarded this year’s World Cup. Punitive rulings against players and teams wanting to make a display of protest undermine the spirit of sport as a space for all.
Rather than de-politicizing sport, these actions by soccer’s governing bodies draw attention to the ways that sport is embroiled in political games for all to see. The silence and silencing of teams, players and organizations that results from these games is an example of a disturbing culture in FIFA and men’s soccer.
Soccer, masculinity and homophobia
Men’s sports have historically been masculinized spaces where boys become men and men prove their manhood. Through powerful acts of resistance, women and other marginalized groups have fought for their sporting spaces in the face of inequality. However, sport, particularly men’s sport, remains an exclusionary space.
The lack of openly gay or transgender professional male soccer players attests to this exclusion. Those players who are open about their sexuality are rightly praised for the courage. But the fact that such courage is required for LGBTIQ+ players only further confirms the entrenched norms in men’s soccer which marginalize men who do not live up to homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic expectations.
Research has shown the damage that homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic forms of masculinity have on men and boys. We have seen the cost of underexamined harmful masculinities in the sexual assaults and ensuing mismanagement of them by Hockey Canada. Conventional codes of manhood and boyhood have permeated sporting spaces, making them exclusionary and not spaces for all to play.
The consequences of silence
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and FIFA secretary general, Fatma Samoura, responded to criticisms of Qatar’s human rights record, saying soccer should not “be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.” Clearly this is an impossibility. Not just because of the political manoeuvres, accusations of sportswashing and a FIFA corruption scandal that rocked soccer’s world governing body, but because the politics and ideology of men’s soccer has left the codes of masculinity within it unexamined.
Men’s soccer has its own questions to answer, not just around the World Cup, but around it’s lack of engagement with social activism and allyship with LGBTIQ+ people and women.
Sports, particularly one as popular as soccer, have the potential to be powerful symbols of inclusivity and acceptance for men and boys. When players and teams are silenced and disciplined for speaking out, it sends a strong message about the culture of sport as well as masculinity.
Moving beyond Qatar
There needs to be a shift in priorities in men’s soccer. For soccer’s governing bodies, money is the priority; for teams and players, it is winning. If that remains the case, social activism in men’s soccer will continue to be diminished. Allyship comes with risks. To do otherwise, however, makes not only FIFA, but players, organizations and sport complicit in a damaging culture of silence.
This World Cup will come and go — in four years, the World Cup comes to Canada, in partnership with the U.S. and Mexico. But the sport culture in men’s soccer needs to be challenged and changed for good starting now — and we should not be fooled that moving on from Qatar means moving on from these issues in men’s soccer.
Masculinity and the singular narrative of “we’re in it to win it” should not be allowed to silence athlete activism. Instead, sport should be a culture not only heralding winners, but one that showcases a spirit of competition rooted in inclusion, acceptance and activism.