Doha, Qatar — Fifa’s threat of a field penalty for players prompted World Cup teams to backtrack on Monday and abandon a plan for their captains to wear armbands seen as a rebuke to Qatar’s human rights record for the host nation.
Just hours before the first players to wear armbands in support of the “One Love” campaign were ready to take to the field, the Football Association Board warned that they would immediately be shown yellow cards – two of which result in a player being sent off from that game and also the next.
This changed the accounts of the seven European teams, who might have just expected to be fined. Offers are a violation of the FIFA rules.
The confrontation was just the latest spat that threatened to overshadow play on the field. Since winning the rights to host the World Cup in 2010, the conservative Islamic state of Qatar has faced a slew of criticism, including for its treatment of low-wage migrant workers and women and its crackdown on freedom of expression. It was criticized especially for criminalizing homosexuality.
The decision came three days after the sale of beer in stadiums was suddenly banned under pressure from the Qatari government and two days after FIFA President Gianni Infantino made an extraordinary speech in defense of the host nation’s human rights record.
The leaders of seven European countries have pledged to wear armbands with the heart-shaped and multicolored “One Love” campaign slogan, which promote inclusion and diversity in football and society. That has created the prospect of viewers around the world seeing a symbol of disapproval from the host country and a challenge to FIFA in the arms of England’s Harry Kane, Dutchman Virgil van Dijk and Wales’ Gareth Bale on Monday.
But in the end, the teams said they couldn’t sacrifice success on the field.
“As national associations, we cannot put our players in a position where they can face sporting penalties, including bookings,” the seven football associations said in a joint statement, referring to yellow cards.
The captains of Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark also pledged to wear armbands in the coming days.
“Our first priority at the World Cup is to win matches,” the Dutch Football Association said in a separate statement. “So you don’t want the captain to start the game with a yellow card.”
The risk of a second yellow, which could result in a player being sent off the field for the remainder of the match and banned from the next match, is particularly difficult in a tournament where teams play only three games before the knockout rounds begin.
The national football federations and supporters’ unions criticized FIFA’s decision to sanction the players. The Danish Football Association’s chief executive, Jakob Jensen, told Danish broadcaster TV2 that the organization was “very disappointed with FIFA”, and DFB president Bernd Neuendorf called it “another low blow”.
“FIFA today banned a statement of diversity and human rights – those are the values it adheres to in its own statutes,” Neuendorf told reporters in Qatar. “From our point of view, this is more than frustrating, and I think it is an unprecedented act in the history of the World Cup.”
FIFA’s move, the world players’ union FIFPRO, has been described as “disappointing”.
“Players must have the right to express their support for human rights on and off the field of play and we will support any of them using their own platforms to do so,” the union said. “We affirm that the rainbow flag is not a political statement but an endorsement of equality and thus a universal human right.”
The Football Supporters Association of England said it felt betrayed by FIFA.
The Free Syrian Army said, “Today we feel contempt for an organization that showed its true values by giving players a yellow card and a red card for tolerance.”
The Belgian FA expressed frustration that FIFA did not act sooner to resolve a problem that began two months ago, only to come to a head in the morning of three-team matches. The Belgian Confederation said that the Europeans “tried several times to avoid escalating this initiative … but we did not receive any response.”
Gurchaten Sandhu, of the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Association, said FIFA had put “athletes in a very embarrassing position”.
“The national teams have tied their hands. They are there to compete,” he said.
He also criticized Infantino’s speech on Saturday in which the football chief defended Qatar and lectured Europeans who criticized the emirate’s human rights record. In that speech, Infantino said: “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel helpless. Today I feel like a migrant worker.”
Sandow objected to Infantino’s choice of words, saying, “You don’t feel like me. You’re gay.”
It was not immediately clear what effect, if any, Qatar’s authoritarian government would have on the captaincy decision. The government and its Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which oversees the World Cup, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The European plans were in violation of the World Cup regulations and FIFA’s general rules on team equipment for its matches.
His equipment regulations state that “For FIFA final competitions, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband provided by FIFA”.
The Football Authority’s proposal, announced on Saturday, was for captains to wear armbands with socially conscious, albeit generic, logos. In this show, the armbands with the inscription “No Discrimination” – the only motto chosen that corresponds to the desire of the European teams – will only appear in the quarter-finals.
On Monday, it offered a settlement, saying the 32 team captains would “have the opportunity” to wear a “no discrimination” armband in group matches.
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