Jackson Irvine urges footballers to use 2022 World Cup to speak out on human rights

Australia midfielder Jackson Irvine has urged footballers heading to the 2022 World Cup to use the opportunity of the tournament being staged in Qatar to speak up on human rights issues and have their voices heard by a global audience.

Irvine has been outspoken on various off-field issues in the past and was instrumental in putting together the Socceroos’ groundbreaking statement last month that raised collective concerns over Qatar’s record on human rights.

The ongoing problem of homophobia in football is an issue close to Irvine’s heart, given he has family and friends who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, attracting punishments of up to seven years in prison. Last week, the president of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, insisted that “everyone is welcome [at the World Cup] regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality”, echoing comments made by the organisers in Qatar.

But Irvine wants clearer messages about inclusivity to come out of the tournament. He said in a new Fifpro global football players’ association series, #ShineALight, that he wanted to use the global spotlight on players at the tournament to raise awareness of non-football issues.

“These few months provide a unique short window of time where the focus is so heavily on us,” he said. “It’s an opportunity not to be wasted because, at the moment, there’s a lack of clarity and a feeling the LGBTQIA+ community will be unwelcome at a global tournament.”

Irvine spearheaded the Socceroos’ video statement released at the end of October that raised concerns about the “suffering” of migrant workers and the inability in Qatar of LGBTQ+ people “to love the person that they choose”. The video – the first collective statement made by a group of national team players – made headlines across the world.

“We, as players, have a big role to play,” he said. “Education and making information available to those in football is going to play a massively important part, as is us speaking up.

“Collective action can come from pressure from individuals to put the sport on that path. I hope to see that collective action at the World Cup. When you play on the biggest stage, in the biggest tournament in the sport, it raises the platform and the attention on individual players and footballers as a collective to speak about issues that matter.”

Irvine is the co-captain of St Pauli – the German club known for its social activism and left-leaning political stance – and a member of Professional Footballers Australia, the players’ union which has been vocal in promoting gay rights.

He said he had noticed “a huge change” in recent years around the unacceptable and outdated language used in football.

Irvine pointed to his fellow Australian Josh Cavallo as being one of the drivers of that shift. Cavallo became in October last year the only known current male top-flight professional footballer in the world to come out as gay.

Despite education and information on the subject becoming more freely available, there was still a lot of progress to be made, Irvine said.

“We’re starting to see players come out and receive overwhelmingly supporting reactions from the football community,” he said.

“It’s massively important for players to continue to speak up and use our voices for good – but to do it we need to feel comfortable and supported. Let’s be clear here: homophobia in football is still a problem. There are a lot of issues facing sport and football in general – and I think any kind of toxic masculine atmosphere, which football unfortunately has sometimes, doesn’t make people from the gay community feel welcome and part of the game. That has to change – and it has to change now.”