Chapter Three – Qatar

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Qatar

Threw caution to the wind but I’ve got a lousy arm

‘Gay Is Not A Synonym For Shitty’ – Fall Out Boy

Qatar. The word feels like a landmine. Oh boy, I’d navigated the interview so well until this point. But then comes Qatar, an innocuous topic on the surface…to most footballers it’s a case of “will you be watching it?”, “have you sent any well-wishes to your Premier League colleagues?” or “Are you disappointed to not make the England squad?”

These are not the questions I want to answer. These questions are crammed in tiny size 8 font on the tip of an iceberg. An iceberg that appears innocent, while its true bulky, political form lurks dangerously beneath. The questions I want are scrawled on that hidden part of the iceberg in gigantic invisible ink and no interviewer wants to put on their scuba gear and delve down there. The radio exec would grind his bones to make their 11am brunch-meeting bread.

I want questions like; “As a gay man, but also an employee of the FIFA umbrella, how do you feel about them handing the sport’s biggest tournament over to a country where homosexuality lands you four years in prison?”

Or maybe; “What are your thoughts on the presumable dozens of closeted gay footballers who are travelling to Qatar right now; a country which serves as a resounding reminder that homosexuality… in 2022…is not welcome in the world’s most popular global sport?”

“Are they safe in this country? Inside the walls they’ve had to build up around themselves against hostile fans, the media, and now an entire host country of a World Cup? Are they tempted to make a stand? Be a sacrifice to send a message of defiance to the world? And what would the repercussions be of that?”

These are the questions I am begging this interviewer to ask me. But he doesn’t. He simply stares with that camera-ready smile, the aloof posture, the shirt playfully unbuttoned at the collar. This is a standard shift for him. These are the standard questions he’s expected to ask in the bland ‘boiled chicken and potatoes’ world that is football media. There is no room for sarcasm, wit, or heaven forbid, even the slightest bit of politics in football; despite there being few other stages in the world that are bigger for such political messages. That’s how football has gotten so big, and bloated, and tumour-like…the demand, and the money, and the greed.

And I am a servant to that. But the cuffs around my hands are sparkled gold.

And I have a nice car parked outside my big house.

I am a hypocrite and I am paid very well to be it.

Something about the interviewer’s insincere, lazy smile breaks something in me though, and I trace my tongue across my lips, lacquering them up to spit the first barrels of gunpowder.

“No. No I won’t be watching the Qatar World Cup.”

For a second that easy smile on the interviewer falters. This wasn’t in the script. He was already on autopilot mode. Breast-stroking through these questions with his eyes closed. I am a footballer, I have been micro-managed to within an inch of my life in the art of bread-and-butter, cookie-cutter answers to media questions. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

The copy sprawled across the prompt reader on the back of my eyelids is an encyclopaedia of these answers. Things like “Yeah, I’m excited for the World Cup. I can’t wait to cheer on the lads, I’ve messaged a few of them to say good luck.” That chestnut would have brought a friendly nod from the interviewer, and allowed him to continue sleepwalking through his questions.

But now he has to stop and think. Does he just bulldoze past that comment and plough on to another banal line of discussion? Or does he get me to repeat myself? Or dare he even get me to elaborate on this comment?

To my wry satisfaction, he chooses the latter.

“Oh! Erm…You more of a Dancing On Ice man this time of year then?” He laughs awkwardly. I purr as I let the seconds of silence strangle him. I actually am a Dancing On Ice man.

“I just don’t agree with the prehistoric laws of the host nation, and the way they wrangled this whole thing from a president that was later found guilty of corruption.” I say tonelessly, holding him trapped in a tractor beam gaze.

“…Not to sound bitter about my lack of a call-up or anything,” I tack on as a post-script. But I’ve misplayed that hand. Now that sounds exactly why I’m not watching it. Not the reported 6,500 migrant workers who died in the preparations…or the anti-gay laws…or the fact that this is a country wholly unfit to serve as the hosts to football’s greatest showpiece.

No…now it looks like the simplest reason associated with modern footballers; Ego.

Leaving the studio, after which the presenter hastily wished me a ‘nice winter break’ before whipping off his microphone and darting to his dressing room, I consoled myself with the possibility that my apparent bitterness at my ‘England snub’ might at least have re-directed detractors away from any gay rumours.

It’s always such a bewilderingly poignant tightrope. A part of me that brings me so much joy, and creativity and pride and the capacity to love others…has to be nestled away like a dirty little secret. My career is my sentence…play football, earn money, keep your secret.

But I was always a Chaotic Good kind of personality. If there was ever any wriggle room to ruffle a few feathers…sprinkle a little stardust…blow a couple of camp kisses on Britain’s most prehistoric heterosexual stage…believe me I would.

I remember in GCSE English, we looked at spoken word, dialect and tone of voice. We discussed how men purposefully deepen their voices to sing chants at football games. It is gang-like, alpha male incensed tribal behaviour, and it still provides the background score to proud, British, heterosexual football.

The social media responses to my interview are as expected.

“Bet he wudn’t b spouting shit like that if he was on the plane. So bitter.”

“Stick to playing football mate. Players these days think they have to be fucking activists as well.”

“Oh dear. We’re gonna see him in Harry Styles pink and pride flag stockings next.”

“No one cares what this pretty-boy prima-donna has to say about anything. Enjoy a relegation fight while the England lads enjoy Qatar.”

Stay classy, Britain. I imagine these are the same people who are cheering on Matt Hancock in the jungle on ‘I’m a Celebrity’. Funny how two weeks of eating kangaroo testicles can completely whitewash a bungled job of running the country in the middle of a global pandemic.

At least one of them thought I was pretty. I click on the guy’s Facebook profile and smirk. I’m flattered, Keith ‘Hudsy’ Hudson from Basingstoke, but sadly you’re not my type…

At this stage in my career, I should probably stop reading comments from the general public in the footnotes of my interviews. There is a trend in the British media to love an underdog; cheer them on during their upward trajectory, until they cross that invisible threshold of ‘too successful’… and then it’s a case of eagerly waiting for them to commit a faux pas and throw themselves to the media wolves.

My comments started off supportive enough, earlier in my career. Being a silent, insecure wallflower of a teenager, I basked in the new adulation, guzzling it down like puffs of butter-slathered popcorn. Now, they’re tired of me. I’m too arrogant. Too egotistical. Too pretty. Too ‘last-season’. Dominic Calvert-Lewin had the same career trajectory as me. From England hopeful to ‘skirt-wearing, injury-prone donkey with a penchant for fashion instead of scoring goals.’

We stan you, Dom. Even if the alphas can’t handle seeing a beautiful man like yourself wearing anything other than a football jersey.

My phone is starting to pop off. Some from team-mates, some from family. Two texts from Justin, “careful with the Qatari-bashing, Cal x” and then “Chinese tonight?” I consider screen-shotting the two messages and sending them to an art exhibition on the fragile art of online conversation, before my agent pops up.

This isn’t transfer deadline day, so I know I’m not being whisked off to sign for Barcelona, or to Al Nassr, where I’ll probably be lynched after my interview comments. No…this is bad news.

I could let it go to voicemail and let him squeal down the phone for seven minutes, but I wanted to practice some new makeup tutorials tonight (or apparently eat Chinese with Justin) so I decide to rip the plaster off, nice and quick.

“Hello, Jerome.”

“Why wasn’t I told about this interview?”

“Good evening to you too.”

“I’m being serious. Honestly, with all these podcasts and Twitch streams and YouTube interviews on nowadays, it’s like you all need bloody baby-sitting.”

If I wasn’t his highest profile player, I would have been dropped long ago. I’m too much hassle for him. He’s 58 now. He just wants to shuffle off to the Bahamas in a few years, not having heart attacks from his ‘attention-whore’ of a client.

“He asked me a question, Jerome. I answered it.”

I can almost hear the cogs in his head blowing steam and exploding.

“But not like that, Callum! Not like that! If you want to go sabotaging your career and winding up the same as Jamie O’Hara, David Bentley or Joey Barton, do it with someone else. I’m not spending my time picking up the pieces of your car-crash media profile.”

Joey Barton. Joey. Fucking. Barton. Funny how speaking out for human rights drops me into the same kettle of fish as a man who once stubbed a cigar out in a teammate’s eye.

“No more interviews, Callum. Not without my approval. You’ve got the rest of your life post-retirement to undo all your work on the pitch. Don’t go all Gazza on me.”

“Thanks for your concern, Jerome.”

Jerome hangs up. His face is probably as red as a radish now, his neck popping out around the collar of his Hugo Boss suit. I would fire him but…then I have to find another agent. And they’ll want me to leave my hometown club in chase of a big pay-check. I don’t want to leave. And for all his faults, Jerome has never once mentioned the gay rumours. I don’t know if he knows.

I don’t know if he wants to know.

It’s like a blanket has been tossed over the cage of my sexuality and we just silently agreed to never speak of it.


Mark Davis

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