Next year’s FIFA World Cup is set to take place in Qatar, but gay soccer player Josh Cavallo is speaking out, saying he would not feel safe playing in a country where homosexuality is banned with punishments ranging from flogging and long prison terms to execution.
Cavallo, who came out last month in a video posted to Adelaide United’s social media feeds, is the only out gay player in men’s professional soccer. Cavallo shared with Guardian Today’s Focus Podcast that his decision to come out followed years of suffering and anguish caused by trying to hide who he was from everyone in his life, including his team, family, and even his friends. “I hid it from everyone I hang around so it was only when I was by myself that I could genuinely relax and not worry and not stress,” he said.
While very few male players in the sport’s history have come out, more than 40 LGBTQ+ players participated in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. The sport’s organizing body, FIFA, has even launched high-profile campaigns embracing LGBTQ+ fans. Despite this, however, it has continued to award World Cup host status to countries where homophobia is rife, including Russia and now Qatar.
Cavallo made it clear that he would feel unsafe playing in Qatar. “I read something along the lines of that [they] give the death penalty for gay people in Qatar, so it’s something I’m very scared [of] and wouldn’t really want to go to Qatar for that,” he revealed. “And that saddens me. At the end of the day the World Cup is in Qatar and one of the greatest achievements as a professional footballer is to play for your country, and to know that this is in a country that doesn’t support gay people and puts us at risk of our own life, that does scare me and makes me re-evaluate – is my life more important than doing something really good in my career?”
And it’s not just Cavallo who’ll be facing this choice, as the soccer player says that he has been privately contacted by other closeted footballers who are fearful about coming out. “There are people who have reached out to me in confidentiality and said: ‘I’m struggling with the same thing Josh,’ and they’re professional footballers too. And look, it’s something you can’t rush. [I say] you want to be yourself, and at the end of the day I wasn’t happy and now look at me, I’m honestly on top of the world,” he recalled. “They like the sound of that and they say: ‘Josh, I haven’t experienced that before and I want to,’ and I say: ‘It’s in your hands, it’s your journey and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.’ I didn’t think there was but there definitely is.”
While Cavallo’s concerns are understandable, Qatari officials are trying to reassure the public that LGBTQ+ players and fans are safe in attending the tournament. The Guardian also reported LGBTQ+ advocates have found no evidence LGBTQ+ people being executed for breaking the country's ban on same-sex relations.
“I would like to assure any fan, of any gender, [sexual] orientation, religion, race to rest assured that Qatar is one of the most safe countries in the world – and they’ll all be welcome here,” tournament chief executive, Nasser al-Khater, said in a statement. There are limits, however. For example, flying a rainbow flag is permitted however public displays of affection are not.
“A public display of affection is frowned upon,” al-Khater explained. “It’s not part of our culture. But that goes across the board to everybody.”