As the men's World Cup in Qatar puts a spotlight on the country's record of human rights violations, Canada Soccer has partnered with a group that aims to tackle homophobia in sports.
You Can Play is a project that started in 2012 that is working to create the most inclusive space possible for LGBT fans, players, coaches and all participants.
Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar, and though the Qatari government has said all fans are welcome, including those who identify as LGBTQ, visitors must respect the nation's culture, in which public displays of affection by anyone are frowned on.
Earl Cochrane, secretary-general of Canada Soccer, said the timing of this partnership is not a coincidence as Canada prepares to make its first World Cup appearance for the first time in 36 years. Canada, in partnership with the U.S. and Mexico, will also play host to the 2026 Men's World Cup.
"This is early stages but it's more about the message we're trying to send — that no matter your sexual orientation, gender identity, or who you choose to love you have a place in this game," Cochrane told CBC Sports. "We've always ensured that was the case, but we've never been outward and intentionally vocal about it. That's one of those important steps we're undertaking right now."
A prominent group of national team supporters in Canada, known as the Voyageurs, has denounced the human rights violations in Qatar, including its treatment of migrant workers brought in to build the tournament's infrastructure.
"We are alarmed with the Qatari government's treatment of the LGBTQ+ population in the country and the many deaths that have occurred in building the World Cup stadia and infrastructure," the club said in a statement, saying it joins with other public calls for compensation to be offered to the families of migrants workers who have died.
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Cochrane said the partnership demonstrates his organization is hearing those concerns.
"In this instance we wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could and not thinking about performative activism, or just making statements, as others may have done," he said. "We wanted to make sure we were actually doing some meaningful things.
"We want to have a significant impact on our sport and our country and use soccer to help make that impact not just domestically but globally. In 2026 we're hosting the world and this is an important step to prepare for that."
Cochrane said the four-year partnership has a number of key deliverables, including establishing an outreach hotline for all participants associated with Canada Soccer, LGBTQ2S+ training conducted by You Can Play for both Canada's men's and women's national teams, Canada Soccer staff and board members, identifying You Can Play player ambassadors, and establishing a national educational outreach program.
They will also be conducting a national survey to better understand current challenges for LGBTQ2S+ youth and players in the sport, as well as completing a comprehensive review of Canada Soccer policies and programs conducted by You Can Play.
"When the lights get turned off in Qatar it's important for us to recognize that we are saying these things publicly. It's important to illustrate that we're doing these things domestically," Cochrane said. "We recognize what's going on in Qatar and have looked at ourselves in the mirror and realize we need to do more.
"It's an opportunity for us to be leaders. I hope the message resonates globally. This is an opportunity for others to learn about what we're doing and will do to ensure our sport is as welcome and safe as it can be."
David Palumbo, You Can Play's vice chair, said the organization is thrilled to be partnering with Canada Soccer.
"I want to thank Earl and his team for our conversations in recent months and for placing their trust in our organization," Palumbo said. "We look forward to building on the important work of making our soccer pitches, boardrooms and locker-rooms a more accessible and safer place for everyone."
Canada opens the World Cup on Nov. 23 against Belgium.
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