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Gay, straight soccer fans team up to demand World Cup be stripped from Russia

A petition on Change.org asks FIFA to move 2018 World Cup due to Russia's human rights record.

A proposed 2018 World Cup stadium in St. Petersburg
A proposed 2018 World Cup stadium in St. Petersburg
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A straight former captain of Oberlin College's soccer team and a gay soccer fan in England have teamed up to demand that the 2018 World Cup be removed from Russia for its human rights record.

So far, 62,000 people have signed the Change.org petition, which reads:

Russia has not been a "team player" when it comes to supporting the human rights of those around the globe and those in their own homeland. They used the banner of the Olympics as a way to stage an invasion of sovereign Ukraine territory, despite widespread international criticism. Now, as Russia further continues to inflame the situation in the Ukraine after their illegal annexation of Crimea, FIFA and World Cup President Sepp Blatter remain silent.

Russia has also instituted anti-gay laws that directly discriminate against human beings, laws that state that imprisonment of up to three years can be given to any individual who "insults the feelings of religious believers" without specifying what that even means, have blatantly abused and underpaid migrant workers, and have killed 21 journalists intentionally for freely reporting the news.

Russia's passing of anti-gay legislation drew widespread attention in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics. But racism is also a problem in the country. Yaya Toure, an English Premier League player from the Ivory Coast, said he and other black players might boycott the 2018 World Cup if they don't feel safe. Chants of "monkey" directed at him in a game last year in Russia resulted in the Russian club being sanctioned.

One of the organizers of the Change.org petition is Zach Lewis, who captained Oberlin College's soccer team from 2005-2009. Lewis is straight and teamed up with James Lavin, a gay British soccer fan who had started a similar petition. I asked Lewis about his passion for this and he sent a terrific email it's worth sharing in full:

I am originally from Westchester, NY, and now currently reside in New York City with my fiancee, Rebecca. I actually am not gay, but know the sight of injustice when I see it and demonizing anyone to say that they are not equal because of who they are is the lowest form of humanity in the world. I operate a few business out of the City in various fields, hi-tech, real estate, and coffee shops. Currently I am 27, and have been brought up to speak out against injustice whenever I see it.

I played soccer through college and captained Oberlin College between 2005-2009. I also played on the USA Maccabai Team in 2007 and for the now defunct Cleveland Internationals of the PDL (USA's 4th division) in the same year. I am a diehard Liverpool supporter, and have been since I was 13, as well as a member of the American Outlaws and the New York City FC Supporters Group.

To me, what is happening in Russia is an abhorrent state of affairs. Between the annexation of lands in Ukrainian sovereign territory, to their own disgusting domestic legislation against gays, Russia hosting the World Cup should disgust everyone. As if the Sochi Olympics weren't enough, the thought having to put up with a host nation who is said to be opening it's doors to the world, is forcing their gay community back inside their closets. To me, there is nothing more disgusting than those two things (apart from the journalists that the government killed, lively racism, the migrant workers who are underpaid and treated like slaves, and the fact that the conditions for the Olympics were repulsive in just one city, let alone the entire nation).

For that reason, I started my petition. Little did I know that James Lavin had started his a few months before. James is gay, loves football, and is really an intellectual, bright guy from the UK. Change.org brought us together to discuss the state of our petitions going forward, and if he and I wanted to work together. Naturally, the answer was yes. We've been discussing further actions ever since, and with the help of Change, are quickly growing our numbers every day as the petition is being translated into a multitude of languages. We launched the petition in Korean 2 days ago and have garnered close to 10,000 signatures already.

Ultimately, our goal is to get FIFA to understand that they do not just represent the sport of football, they represent us, those who support the game, love the game, and know that a ball cannot differentiate who kicks it on. FIFA is meant to protect all of the supporters and must come to understand that the World Cup is not an event that goes to the highest bidder (as is obviously the case) to fill their pockets, it is an event that unites the world under one banner, in one nation, in the name of football. In Russia, a nation where hooligans chant racial slurs, beat gays, burn German flags, and incite rioting in a neighboring state, how is anyone supposed to come together to celebrate the world in that same nation?

The World Cup in 1994 changed my life. I went to matches at the old Meadowlands and watched as Norwegian and Italian fans cheered on their teams, and Scottish and Colombian fans drank merrily in parking lots. I was 7, and that is what stuck with me more than anything else in the world. Here, under the auspices of a game, the world converged to celebrate with itself. I don't see how that is possible in a totalitarian nation like Russia in 2018. For those reasons, I started and continue to push this petition with James on. It's for love of the game.

FIFA, soccer's organizing body, has shown no interest in moving the World Cup and given its history, I wouldn't hold my breath. But change only comes when people demand it, so check out the Change.org petition and sign it if you agree with its aims.