American soccer journalist Grant Wahl attended the United States’ World Cup opener Monday in Qatar, where the best-selling author of The Beckham Experiment was refused entry and had his phone confiscated for nearly a half hour after stadium officials told him he would have to remove his shirt, which featured a rainbow design in support of LGBTQ rights. A colleague, Andrew Das of the New York Times, was also detained for greeting Wahl in passing.
Wahl had previously been assured by both FIFA and US Soccer that his attire wouldn’t be an issue despite Qatar’s hard stance against same-sex marriage. The former Sports Illustrated columnist (now of CBS Sports and Meadowlark Media) was eventually let in and offered an apology by both FIFA and stadium security, the latter claiming they were only trying to protect him from other fans.
Throughout their training, venue workers were explicitly told not to confront or engage peaceful protestors, which was obviously not Wahl’s experience. In recounting the incident on Twitter, Wahl called his detainment an “unnecessary ordeal” while accusing the Qatari regime of “changing the goal posts.” Notably, Qatar changed course by banning all alcohol sales days before the tournament, doing so in defiance of Budweiser, who paid $75 million to be the event’s official beer sponsor. Visitors staying in the “fan village” have expressed similar frustrations, lamenting the facility’s squalid living conditions.
Qatar’s selection as host of this year’s World Cup was met with significant controversy, owing to the country’s dismal human rights record and rampant government corruption. Thousands of migrant workers have died in the country in the decade since it was awarded the World Cup, many of them on World Cup construction projects, leading to further accusations of “sportswashing.”
Based on its sordid track record, it was probably naïve to expect anything different from Qatar, a country with enough power and resources to feed its worst impulses, wielding immense influence over a hopelessly compromised global economy. It may not change anything, but credit Wahl for bringing attention to a cause that’s important to him, even if it made for a traumatic experience.