AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — Authorities at the World Cup venues in Qatar told two American journalists in recent days to remove clothing with rainbow patterns.
On Saturday, Los Angeles Times reporter Kevin Baxter was told by a police officer at the US men’s national team practice site in Qatar that the rainbow mask is not allowed.
Two days later, at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, where the USMNT plays Wales on Monday night, longtime soccer journalist Grant Wahl said he was told by security to change his rainbow-patterned shirt around the soccer ball. FIFA told Yahoo Sports the incident was a “mistake” and said it had been “resolved”.
Wahl said in a follow-up tweet that he was held “for almost half an hour.” He wrote on his website that after tweeting about the incident, the security guard “violently ripped the phone out of my hands.” He was eventually allowed to enter with his shirt on, but only after what he described as a “trial”.
LGBTQ rights have become one of several focal points of this World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality is criminalized. FIFA and the Board of Governors, the joint organizers of the World Cup, have promised LGBTQ fans and participants that they are welcome. FIFA President Gianni Infantino said on Saturday that he had “discussed this topic with the top leadership of the country — several times, not just once. And they have confirmed that they can confirm that everyone is welcome.”
But before kick-off on Monday, seven European teams scrapped plans to wear anti-discrimination rainbow captain’s armbands after FIFA threatened them with “sporting sanctions”. Then ESPN reported that FIFA required Belgium to remove the word “love” from the collar of their jerseys two days before their Group F match with Canada.
But what fans and Western officials have always worried about is the organizers’ inability to control the actions of every single local policeman and security guard.
Baxter — who has been wearing a rainbow mask, among others, for about two years — was told to take it off as he entered Thani bin Jassim Stadium ahead of the U.S. practice. He was then offered the standard blue mask, at which point he realized he was probably being told to take it off because of the LGBTQ Pride colors. “And then I got upset,” he told Yahoo Sports. He refused to wear a regular mask and left without it.
After Baxter tweeted about the incident, a U.S. Soccer official came to him “very upset about the officer’s actions,” he said. He was later called by a representative of the Supreme Committee, who asked him about his safety and said they would investigate the incident.
Wahl also said he received an apology from FIFA officials. Here’s the rest of his description of the incident from Wahl’s website:
One security guard told me that my shirt was “political” and not allowed. The other kept refusing to return my phone. Another guard shouted at me while standing over me – I was already sitting on a chair – that I had to take my shirt off.
“You can make this look easy. Take your shirt off,” said one.
I told him I wasn’t, adding that my shirt wasn’t political at all.
My friend Andrew Das, a reporter for the New York Times, came by and I let him know what was going on. They also took him into custody.
Eventually the guards made me stand up, turn around and face the CCTV camera above us.
“Are you from the UK?” asked a guard.
“New York,” I said. This was getting boring. I arrived when I would have enough time to watch the Netherlands-Senegal match, and now I missed it.
They finally let Andy go. And then the security commander approached me. He said they were letting me go and apologized. We shook hands.
One of the security guards told me they were just trying to protect me from fans who might hurt me for wearing the shirt.
(A FIFA representative later apologized to me as well.)