Soccer’s unifying spirit despite divisive politics

Every time Alex Hahn’s soccer cleats step on the turf, he feels release from the many issues he hasn’t been able to consolidate ever since he was a six-year-old girl. Issues such as how he didn’t like the female body he was born in and how he felt uncomfortable in his own skin.

“I felt there was something inside me missing,” he said. “But soccer, it took me away.”

On the field, he didn’t have to pretend or hide his tastes for fear of judgment because on the field, he was free.

Hahn is a transgender first-year student at St. Thomas University from Moncton. About a year and a half ago, after educating himself more on gender transition, it all began to make sense and he decided to start his own transition.

“I cut my hair, started dressing more masculine and threw out all my girl clothes. I started showing that I am a male,” he said.

Hahn was excited to finally move to Fredericton, a city with more transgender education than Moncton, according to him. He was excited to get treatment and continue with the transition that would “build the body I was supposed to be in.”

But then he received a message that changed it all.

Michelle DeCourcey, the STU women’s soccer head coach, emailed Hahn and invited him to go to soccer try outs. Hahn went, performed well and made the team. With this accomplishment, however, came a tough choice: Playing soccer or continuing with his gender transition to “become myself.”

“I love soccer. It is a huge part of my life. I started playing soccer when I was six, so I have been playing for a little while.”

Hahn knew once he began taking testosterone, which he’d have to do for the rest of his life, there was no way he’d be able to play competitive soccer ever again.

“Being on testosterone is a performance enhancer so it is considered cheating if you play with testosterone in your body. I decided to hold off taking testosterone hormones just so I can play soccer.”

He put a pause to his transition, even if it broke his heart. He knew soccer, like it had many times before, was going to mend it.

At first, Hahn felt joining the girls’ team was a step back from the new life he had worked so hard to accept and create.

“Just by seeing that, they see me as less of a man. So that hurts … But there’s no other way for me to play soccer. I am not physically built for men’s soccer.”

His release and freedom was now tainted with ‘let’s do it girls’ and ‘keep it up ladies.’

Harmless words to many, yet bullets that dragged him down and seduced him into quitting.

“I told one of my teachers ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s really hurting me.’”

Hahn’s professor asked if he would like for her to have a meeting with the soccer team about the issue.

“I was scared someone was not going to be OK with it.”

He didn’t want to ruin the team spirit, something so important in sports. But Hahn’s professor talked to the team about using gender-neutral pronouns and said although it was a women’s soccer team, more than one gender was represented within them.

“It took a lot of adapting and it took a while for a lot of people to pick up on it but I know that everyone on the team tried really hard and I appreciate it. It made me feel really good.”

It brought them together.

FIFA’s dirty dealings

This is what Hahn admires most about soccer, how it brings people together.

When it happens most is during FIFA’s soccer World Cups. Billions of people come together to support the country and the sport they love. In fact, about 3.2 billion tune in to watch the men’s World Cup final, making it the most televised sports event in the world.

FIFA men’s soccer World Cup has been taking place every four years since 1930, while the women’s World Cup has been held every four years since 1991.

Hahn learned a lot about these events when his mom worked as one of the head managers of the FIFA women’s World Cup in 2015.

“I kind of worked for FIFA in a way. I was basically my mom’s little messenger.”

By spending so much time with FIFA employees, Hahn saw how much work goes into these events.

“It’s a family event,” he said after reminiscing about the number of families he saw going to watch the games together during those days.

However, many soccer fans including him and John-Ryan Morrison, the STU men’s soccer head coach, recognize as years go by, the World Cup is less and less about family fun and loving the sport and more about making profit at any cost.

The 2022 men’s World Cup will take place in Qatar, a country where homosexuality is illegal and where more than 1,000 migrant workers have already died building infrastructure to host the event due to a lack of labour regulations.

In fact, The Guardian reported one Nepalese migrant worker died every two days doing work related to the World Cup infrastructure.

Qatar is expected to spend around $200-billion USD to construct everything needed for the Cup, since the country didn’t even have stadiums prior to being chosen as host.

For these reasons, more than 13 countries planned to file lawsuits against the decision to have the World Cup in Qatar but FIFA ignored them.

“FIFA, despite being a not-for-profit organization, has something over $600 million in savings,” said Morrison, who has been to five World Cups already. “Their number-one goal will always be to make the most amount of money as possible from events like the World Cup.”

Even though some World Cups, like the women’s of 2015 that Hahn experienced, result in successful spectacles, other ones lie at the middle of dirty deals and bloodshed.

“They’ve done things very poorly in the past,” said Morrison, adding this will continue as long as FIFA keeps making money.

The 2014 FIFA men’s World Cup in Brazil had issues as well. Military jeeps drove throughout favelas, the poorest neighbourhoods of Brazil close to tourist areas, trying to “cleanse” the cities in preparation for the World Cup. As reported by the BBC, the military took over these neighbourhoods with guns ready to be used.

Yet compared to Qatar, Brazil only experienced 10 migrant worker deaths. More than 4,000 migrant workers are expected to die by the time the Qatar World Cup begins, according to the New York Times.

In mid-2016, Qatar was given 12 months by the United Nations to end migrant worker slavery or face an investigation.

Although Qatar has changed a few labour laws to appease the UN, workers building stadiums are still at risk of forced labour because of insufficient reforms that “barely scratch the surface” of the exploitation occurring, according to Amnesty International U.K., the world’s largest human rights organization.

Closed minds or open arms?
Hahn believes everyone should have the chance to experience the World Cup by having it nearby. On the other hand, he said this situation poses a lot of problems.

“People are willing to travel for this event and it’s not right for some to be like ‘We can’t go to this game because I married a man or I married a woman.’”

This is why he thinks the World Cup should be held in countries that welcome everyone.

“You need to find some place that has open arms to everyone. Everyone should feel welcome because it is an international event. Discriminating against one certain kind of people ruins the family united together.”

Morrison believes FIFA’s sponsors should turn their backs and close their wallets to the organization in support of the many workers who need their help as well as soccer fans who are gay. This would be the only way, he said, for FIFA to retract.

Hahn worries about possible hate crimes at the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar.

“I am sure there’s some athletes who are not straight. So I am wondering if those athletes are going to be safe? Are they going to be able to sleep at their hotel at night and feel comfortable?”

He said countries in which homosexuality is illegal are prone to have many closed-minded people.

“I would hate for anyone to get hurt at an event that is supposed to be for pleasure.”

Hahn said people are forgetting soccer has nothing to do with sexual identity.

“What does it matter how the person you are playing against looks like or loves? Intimate love and love for your sport are two different things that shouldn’t interfere.”

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