World Cup organizers threatened on Monday to issue a yellow card to any player wearing a rainbow armband at the event, escalating a battle that had started as a show of support for gay rights but turned into a battle between world soccer’s governing body. and few European countries.
England captain Harry Kane is expected to be the first player to wear a multi-coloured armband in this World Cup. Instead, he appeared in England’s tournament opener against Iran wearing an armband bearing the logo of FIFA’s own No Discrimination campaign, which was rushed out, apparently to spoil One Love’s plans.
The One Love bracelets were designed to show support for minority groups amid concerns about the treatment of the LGBTQ community in Qatar, where homosexuality is a crime. A group of European football federations joined forces and planned to defy the strict uniform rules set by FIFA, world football’s governing body, and wear them at the World Cup, football’s biggest stage.
However, the teams said on Monday that FIFA’s threat of discipline made that impossible. Its decision to target players so directly at such a high-profile event had little precedent and highlighted the tensions it is grappling with in Qatar. Just three days ago, FIFA angered a long-time business partner by announcing that beer would no longer be available in the perimeters of all eight World Cup stadiums.
The latest decision will impose further scrutiny on FIFA; FIFA President Gianni Infantino; and Qatar, the host country of the tournament. Qatar has become increasingly clear about keeping the event in line with its own traditions and customs. In Qatar, a conservative Muslim emirate, the sale of beer is strictly controlled and homosexuality is a criminal offence.
In discussions over the weekend, the teams were willing to accept a fine for the uniform violation. But they faced a new threat on Monday, according to a statement issued by the seven European teams, including England, Wales and the Netherlands, who played their tournament openers on Monday. FIFA, which did not respond to letters sent to teams in September informing them of its intentions, instead waited several hours before the first games to threaten to issue yellow cards to players wearing the unauthorized armband.
Starting the game with a yellow card means that the player starts the game at risk of receiving a second during the match. Players can compete with one yellow, but two yellows lead to a red card, which results in a dismissal and then a suspension for the next game.
As a result, teams said they had no choice but to ask their players not to risk a penalty.
“FIFA has made it very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear armbands on the field of play,” the seven teams said in a joint statement. “As national federations, we cannot put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including bookings, so we have asked captains not to attempt to wear the armbands at FIFA World Cup matches.
“We were prepared to pay the fines that would normally be imposed for breaking kit rules and we were very committed to wearing the wristbands. However, we cannot put our players in a situation where they can be booked or even sent off.
The statement was jointly issued by the football federations of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“We are very disappointed by FIFA’s decision, which we believe is unprecedented,” the federations said. On Sunday, FIFA’s meeting with officials from European federations ended without a resolution, with officials from the countries concerned insisting they continue. By Monday, that determination had apparently melted away, although the symbol they had chosen to make their point wasn’t exactly the colors of the Pride flag. Their effort seems to have been trying to provide pressure to meet the groups’ needs at home while not infuriating the hosts in Qatar. But in the end, even that was too much.
Oliver Bierhoff, director of Germany’s national team, which opens the tournament against Japan on Wednesday, said FIFA had “escalated” the situation overnight. Germany captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer Bierhoff said he went to bed on Sunday “believing he would wear the armbands”. Both Neuer and England captain Kane had spoken publicly about their commitment to wearing the armbands.
But FIFA had the final say, once again making an 11th-hour decision that appeared to favor host nation Qatar. FIFA President Infantino called for the Gulf nation’s defense on Saturday, outlining why criticism of the country is wrong in a nearly hour-long monologue that blasted European nations for what he described as “hypocrisy” and “moralizing.”
The decision may undermine FIFA’s efforts to emphasize its role in promoting human rights. For example, ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it partnered with Human Rights Watch to issue a message supporting the right of Iranian women to attend matches in stadiums, a longstanding ban that largely remains in place. FIFA’s position at the time was that human rights and women’s rights were not political.
The organization has always tried to steer teams away from anything that could be perceived as a political gesture. Its rules about whether penalties can be called on the field appeared to be vague enough to encourage teams to force a statement.
Bernd Neendorf, president of the German Football Association, said the result was a “show of strength for FIFA”.
FIFA said in a statement that it had launched its “No Discrimination” campaign, which was due to start in the quarter-finals, so captains could wear armbands with the logo throughout the World Cup.
Some activist groups responded by criticizing FIFA for shutting down what they already saw as a weak show of support for minority groups.
“A symbolic gesture from the start, which has become another embarrassment from FIFA,” British LGBTQ fan group network Pride in Football wrote on Twitter. “FIFA has had to deal with this since September and yet they are waiting until now to threaten sanctions. FIFA is denying players their basic right to freedom of expression.
Football Supporters Europe, the umbrella organization of supporters’ groups, described FIFA’s decision as a betrayal.
“Today we feel contempt for an organization that has shown its true values by yellow carding players and red carding tolerance,” the statement said. “Since 2010, we have raised questions about Qatar’s suitability to host the World Cup. Everyone could see it, and it’s amazing that on the morning of England’s World Cup opener, FIFA is trying to censor players for sharing positive news.