Bowing to FIFA, seven teams ask captains not to wear #OneLove armbands
By Tariq Panja and Andrew Das
Organizers of the World Cup threatened earlier this week to issue a yellow card to any player who wears a rainbow armband at the event, escalating a fight that had begun as a show of support for gay rights but has turned into a showdown between world soccer’s governing body and a handful of European nations.
Harry Kane, the captain of England’s national soccer team, was expected to be the first player to take the field in a multicolored armband emblazoned with the words “One Love” at this World Cup. Instead he appeared at England’s tournament opener against Iran on Monday wearing an armband bearing the logo of FIFA’s own “No Discrimination” campaign, which was rushed out, apparently to spoil the “One Love” plans.
The “One Love” armbands were designed to show support for minority groups amid continuing concerns about the treatment of the LGBTQ community in Qatar, where homosexuality is a crime. A group of European soccer federations joined forces and planned to defy the strict uniform rules by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, and wear them at the World Cup, soccer’s biggest stage.
On Monday, however, the teams said FIFA’s threats of discipline have made that impossible. Its decision to take aim at players in such a direct way at such a high-profile event had little precedent and underlined the tensions it is grappling with in Qatar. Just three days ago, FIFA infuriated a longtime business partner by announcing that beer would no longer be available within the perimeters of all eight World Cup stadiums.
The latest decision will put further scrutiny on FIFA; FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino; and Qatar, the tournament’s host nation. Qatar has been increasingly strident that the event keeps with its traditions and customs. The sale of beer is strictly controlled in Qatar, a conservative Muslim emirate, and homosexuality is a criminal offense.
In discussions over the weekend, the teams had appeared willing to accept a fine for the uniform violation. But by Monday they faced the new threat, according to a statement released by the seven European teams, including England, Wales and the Netherlands, which played their tournament openers Monday. FIFA, which did not reply to letters sent by the teams in September informing it of their intentions, instead waited until hours before the first games to make its threat to issue a yellow card to players wearing the unsanctioned armband.
Starting a game on a yellow card means a player begins play at risk of receiving a second during the match. Players can compete with one yellow, but two yellows lead to a red card — resulting in an ejection and then a suspension for the next game.
As a result, the teams said, they had little choice but to ask their players not to risk punishment.
“FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play,” the group of seven teams said in a joint statement. “As national federations, we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked the captains not to attempt to wear the armbands in FIFA World Cup games.
“We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband. However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play.”
The statement was issued jointly by the soccer federations of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“We are very frustrated by the FIFA decision, which we believe is unprecedented,” the federations said. On Sunday, FIFA’s meetings with officials from the European federations ended without a resolution and with officials from the nations concerned insisting they would press on. By Monday that resolve had apparently melted away, even though the symbol they had picked to make their point was not quite in the colors of the Pride flag. Their effort appeared to try to thread the needle of meeting the demands of activist groups at home while not infuriating their Qatari hosts. But in the end even that was too much.
Oliver Bierhoff, the director of Germany’s team, which opens its tournament against Japan on Wednesday, said FIFA had “escalated” the situation overnight. Germany’s captain, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Bierhoff said, went to bed Sunday “believing he would be wearing the armband.” Both Neuer and Kane, England’s captain, had spoken publicly about their determination to wear the armband.
But it was FIFA that had the final say, once again making an eleventh-hour decision that appeared to benefit the host country, Qatar. Infantino, FIFA’s president, on Saturday rallied to the Gulf country’s defense, outlining why criticism of the country is wrong during nearly an hourlong soliloquy that lashed European countries for what he described as their “hypocrisy” and “moralizing.”
The decision may undercut efforts by FIFA to highlight its own role in promoting human rights. For example, before the World Cup in Russia in 2018 it worked with Human Rights Watch to issue a message in support of the rights of women in Iran to attend games in stadiums, a long-standing ban that largely remains in place. FIFA’s position then was that human rights and women’s rights were not political.
The organization has always tried to steer teams from anything that could be perceived as a political gesture. Its rules on whether there could be on-field penalties appear to have been vague enough to embolden the teams to push through with making a statement.
Bernd Neuendorf, president of the German Football Association, said the outcome was “a show of force from FIFA.”