Last year New Year’s Eve pyrotechnics were all big bangs but no punters. The pandemic saw to that. This year, punters were back in force, lining the banks of the Thames. To mark their return, London Mayor Sadiq Khan put on a show of shock and awe. There were nods to various events from 2022 – the lionesses’ historic win in the Euros, fifty years of London Pride, standing tall with Ukraine and, of course, remembering Her Maj. The sky exploded like a million party poppers, a spectacular musical extravaganza to celebrate London’s extraordinary diversity and strong sense of inclusion – a city for all – and it was a marvellous sight to behold.
Despite coming from a football-obsessed family and a football-obsessed country in a football-obsessed world, I’ve little interest in the beautiful game. But starting tomorrow it’ll be wall-to-wall coverage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Unless I move to Mars or become a hermit for the duration, it’ll be impossible to avoid the unremitting flood of games, goals, news and views coming at me from every direction. But I’m not a total killjoy. Even I hope our home countries of Wales and England do well.
But here’s the rub: how did a country with little or no tradition of playing football, no venues to speak of and summer temperatures hot enough to melt the slap on a drag queen’s face win the bid to host the big daddy of all competitions? Record bungs and backhanders, naturally – or so it’s alleged. Associated football is drowning in the filthy lucre, the richest sport on the planet, so there’s a bottomless pit of petty cash to go around. At least some sense has prevailed and kick-off has been postponed to late autumn so players and fans alike don’t drop dead in the heat.
Setting aside the well-greased palms, there’s also the small matter of civil rights – or lack thereof – in the oil-rich nation ruled with an iron fist by an absolute monarch. When it comes to the footie, Qatar may be strictly Sunday morning kickabout but it’s in the top flight for limited freedoms for women, enforced (and sometimes deadly) labour akin to modern-day slavery and oppression of LGBT people. Of course, this won’t stop the circus rolling into town to take the Sheik’s shilling.
The beautiful game just got ugly.
PS. It now seems FIFA’s President, Gianni Infantino, thinks being teased at school for having red hair and freckles is the same as being banged up in a Qatari hellhole prison for being gay. What a prat.
Our rainbow day came hot on the heels of the opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham earlier that week. Eccentric, multicultural and with a distinctly steampunk feel, it was a gloriously quirky start to the games. Check out the amazing pictures from the Guardian.
For me, a spectacular high point of the show was Tom Daley, Olympic champion diver and growing national treasure, carrying the Queen’s baton flanked by gay rights activists each holding the LGBT progress flag high and proud.
Seen by over one billion viewers worldwide, they were there to spotlight the barbaric situation where in over half of Commonwealth countries homosexuality is illegal and also where, in three of them, the maximum penalty is execution. Just think about that for a moment. That’s another good reason why we need pride events.
But now the ‘Friendly Games’ – and they were terrific – are over for another four years, will Tom’s rainbow flag-waving make a lasting difference? We can but hope.
Click the image below to see the footage on the BBC.
Football, as we all know, is filthy rich – a huge multi-billion pound global business and a not altogether honest one, with bungs and bribes flying about like confetti. While the beautiful game is not my cup of char, there’s no denying the considerable passion it stirs. After a few difficult years in the shade, the Norwich City Football Team – known as the Canaries – have just been promoted to the English Premier League, the richest of them all, I’m told. The city threw a party to celebrate and thousands of devoted fans pitched up to cheer the team on as the boys in yellow and green paraded through the streets in an open-top bus. It was impossible not to be swept along by the enthusiasm, lighting up a very dull day. The boost to the club’s coffers – not to mention the players’ wages – and the local economy as a whole should be substantial. Well done, lads.
Yesterday, Norwich Pride reached the grand old age of 10 and the streets of the city throbbed to the fabulous in their multi-coloured glory. We came, we saw, we partied along with the mums, dads, kids and grandparents. Summer is Pride season and rainbow flags have been flying across the realm. Sadiq Khan, London’s Muslim Mayor, danced across a giant flag during London Pride and even the sleepy Suffolk town of Beccles flew one from the Town Hall. It’s about inclusion, right?
Not in Russia it’s not. In Russia the rainbow flag is subversive gay propaganda opening the floodgates to kiddie-fiddlers, making ladies of the lads, lads of the ladies and bringing Mother Russia to her knees. Waving it can land you in the clink, or worse. The term ‘Russian bear’ doesn’t refer to a hairy mary bopping round a bum-bag to Abba’s Dancing Queen, and it takes a brave soul to be out and proud. And so a band of rainbow comrades employed a little cunning to get their point across at the recent World Cup. Big respect to Norwich’s very own Di Cunningham, chair of Pride in Football, who rolled out the Three Lions Pride flag at England games. I’ve read Di and her team got a bit of low-level hassle from the authorities, but as the flag was endorsed by the English Football Association and supported by the UK Government, the Ruskies let it go. No one was going to provoke an international incident at Putin’s big showcase.
More subtle was a group of activists from Spain, The Netherlands, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia who roamed the streets, squares and subways of Moscow wearing their national kits which just happened to make up – you guessed it – the rainbow flag. Now that’s what I call a result.
Images courtesy of The Hidden Flag #thehiddenflag