How FIFA Outgrew Homophobia–Almost

The inside story of how a gay-rights activist nearly persuaded the World Soccer Federation to clean up its act and denounce heterosexist bigotry.

David Gannon / AFP-Getty Images

One of the mightiest bastions of homophobia in the developed world recently came tantalizingly close to falling. The not-quite occasion was the June 26 opening of the women's soccer World Cup in Berlin. The sport’s governing body, FIFA—the scandal-plagued World Soccer Federation—has come under attack lately for its unenlightened attitude toward gays. The uproar began with the federation’s controversial decision to award the 2022 men's World Cup to the authoritarian gulf emirate of Qatar, where homosexuality is outlawed and gays are legally subject to flogging and imprisonment. Then FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, really put his foot in his mouth at a press conference last December when a reporter raised the question of gay soccer fans who would be afraid to attend. Blatter laughed out loud and quipped: “Then they should refrain from any sexual activities.” (He later apologized).

The criticism grew even more furious this June, when The New York Times quoted the Nigerian national women’s coach, Eucharia Uche, as crediting Christian prayer and “divine intervention” for helping to purge all lesbians from her team. (Divine intervention did not prevent Nigeria from losing to France one-to-nil on the Cup’s opening day.) FIFA later issued a statement saying Uche denies “allegations” that she made any homophobic remarks.

In any case, such bigotry goes far beyond Nigeria. Last November, for example, Croatian soccer president Vladimir (Vlatko) Markovic publicly vowed never to allow gay players on a Croatian team because “only healthy people” play soccer. With attitudes like this, it’s hardly surprising that not a single big-league male player in any of the 208 FIFA member countries has ever come out as gay. Only in women’s soccer have a few lesbian players come out of the closet in recent years—and at least one, South Africa's Eudy Simelane, was gang-raped and murdered in 2008 after revealing her homosexuality. South African gay activists say the crime was an example of "corrective rape," a practice that some South Africans consider a way to turn lesbian women straight.

FIFA’s Stone Age views seemed likely to persist indefinitely—that is, until the federation ran into Robert Kastl, the organizer of Berlin’s annual Gay Pride Parade. Sloppy organizers in the host city had promised both FIFA and Kastl the use of the central square in front of the iconic Brandenburg Gate for their respective events on the same day, June 25—FIFA for the official World Cup opening event the night before the first game, and Kastl for the 700,000 revelers attending the parade.

Kastl sent the 75-year-old Blatter a letter—half-jokingly and not even expecting a response, he says—offering to reroute the parade if FIFA would agree to issue a public denunciation of homophobia. The federation had taken similar steps in the past by launching high-profile campaigns to combat racism and soccer hooliganism. Hoping to win the coveted space without a public brawl, World Cup officials gave in to most of Kastl's demands, with the backing of FIFA headquarters in Zurich. According to people directly involved in the negotiations, including Kastl, a Berlin city official, and two World Cup organizers, the two sides reached agreement that FIFA would not only explicitly denounce homophobia with a first-ever official statement from Zurich, but the federation would also include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination campaign and would advertise the fact on a field-side billboard in Berlin's Olympic Stadium during the opening game.

It was not to be. On the brink of FIFA’s historic announcement, World Cup organizers abruptly canceled the Brandenburg Gate event. They had hoped to attract blockbuster stars like Pink or Beyoncé, but by early spring hadn't signed up any big-name talent. No longer needing the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop, the federation backed away from its commitments. "The reason FIFA no longer feels obligated to continue is that this issue is still very difficult for them," says a German soccer official speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There are a lot of member countries that still have problems with homosexuality, to put it mildly. And the people running FIFA are of a generation that has great difficulties speaking openly about the subject."

And FIFA seems to think it has more important fights to fight. In response to Western worries that the 2022 World Cup would be a boring affair in mostly dry Qatar, the emirate has agreed to allow special fan zones inside the stadiums where alcohol will be permitted, so that fans can get properly tipsy to enjoy the games. Just as long as they don’t get too close to each other.