Ignoring the hysteria: Qatar’s World Cup through the lens of an LGBT fan
Much has been made of Qatar’s awarding of the FIFA World Cup, specifically its record on LGBT issues. Ben Stevens speaks to David Lewis, a Welsh LGBT fan who went to Qatar, for his take on the most controversial World Cup in history.
Tapping his leg furiously as he sits in a departure lounge at Heathrow Airport, 26-year-old David Lewis feels a buzz.
He is excited and optimistic. The moment he has dreamed of since he was a boy is just around the corner. The moment for which he has saved up long and hard is about to begin.
David is about to jet off and watch his beloved Wales play at the FIFA World Cup, his nation’s first appearance at the tournament for 62 years. He travels alone but knows he can’t miss this moment for the world.
“As soon as we won the play-off game against Ukraine in the summer, I immediately started looking at flights and hotels,” David says.
“I just knew at that point that nothing was going to stop me from getting to Qatar. I was just hell-bent on going.”
David says he is excited, but he knows deep down his words are somewhat of a charade. He flicks through the sports sites on his phone, seeing that the frenzy whipped up by the press about the Middle East country hosting the tournament is still in overdrive.
He feels his chest tighten with apprehension – as it would if you were a gay man travelling to a country where homosexuality is illegal.
David knows he probably shouldn’t be going, that he is taking a risk. He knows the safer option is to watch on at home with friends and family, with the Christmas tree up and the lights on in the background.
But he also knows that this is an experience he might not ever get to see again.
“Strangely enough, my first impression of Doha was that the place was incredible,” David says of the Qatari capital, a world away from his home in Tycroes, a small village 15 miles north of Swansea.
“I remember I was feeling a bit jittery but everyone was kind and welcoming. I don’t really know what I was expecting but I didn’t necessarily anticipate how blasé about the whole thing everyone would be.
“Everyone there, certainly the Qatari nationals anyway, seemed to be completely in their own bubble. They were either completely oblivious to the criticism by the Western media or just totally shutting it down and ignoring it.
“What I was seeing on the ground was different to the narrative being described back home.”
David has tickets for Wales’s first two group stage games against the United States and Iran and he plans to watch the final group game against England in a fan zone in the city.
Having explored Doha for a couple of days and begrudgingly watched the Three Lions get off to an emphatic start against Iran, it was nearly time for Wales’s first World Cup game since 1958 at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, a suburb of Doha.
After two carefree days of sightseeing however, that nervous feeling started to course through David’s body again – and it wasn’t just from the anticipation of the game.
He gets to the stadium a bit later than he originally had planned. The new metro system built in Doha specifically for the tournament is exceptionally busy, as fans try and get from one stadium to another. There are a few delays, but nothing major.
He starts to see some videos on his phone, some of which end up being shared hundreds of times across the social networks. He squints his eyes at his screen to get a better look, but he clearly sees some Welsh LGBT fans having some problems at the ticket gates.
“I don’t know what the exact nature of the trouble was but I assumed it stemmed from some of the fans wearing the rainbow bucket hats and rainbow tops underneath their Wales shirts,” David explains.
“I remember subconsciously pulling my phone towards my chest whilst I was still on the train. All of my preconceived thoughts from back home about what might happen came flooding back.
“I suddenly questioned whether they were going to allow me into the stadium. Maybe someone might think I look gay and not let me in.
“I was actually quite scared, not only for myself but for that group of fans too. As a gay man, I’m used to dealing with a few issues like this, but it’s an entirely different ball game when you’re in a nation that is oppressive towards our community.”
Now off the train and with increased angst and trepidation, David presents his ticket at the gate. He wonders if he was wearing a rainbow hat or top whether he would face the same problems as his fellow fans. He isn’t, and he is let in with a wide smile from the guard and with a minimum amount of fuss.
He moves through the stadium and sits with a group of Welsh fans. The last-minute ban on alcohol in the arena fails to diminish his now buoyant mood an iota. He hardly drinks anyway – and never at the football.
David’s ten-day stay in Doha ends as Wales crash out of the tournament with a whimper. Despite his country’s poor performance, he has no regrets about going.
“It’s a shame we went out so early, but despite everything I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he says.
“I think most people within the LGBT community appreciate the concern set out for us in advance of the tournament, although I would be a hypocrite to say that Qatar shouldn’t have hosted the World Cup, having attended it myself.
“The fact of the matter is that gay people are still looking over their shoulder in lots of places, not just Qatar, and until we feel entirely safe in our own countries, how can we expect to feel safe in others?”