World Cup organizers threatened on Monday to issue a yellow card to any player wearing a rainbow armband at the event, escalating a fight that began as a show of support for gay rights but has turned into a clash between world soccer’s governing body and a handful of European countries.
Harry Kane, the captain of the England national football team, is expected to be the first player to take to the field with a multicolored armband emblazoned with the words “One Love” at the World Cup. Instead he appeared at England’s tournament opener against Iran wearing an armband emblazoned with FIFA’s own “No Discrimination” campaign logo, which was rushed out, apparently to spoil the “One Love” plan.
The “One Love” armband was designed to show support for minority groups amid ongoing concerns about the treatment of the LGBTQ community in Qatar, where homosexuality is a crime. A group of European football federations are joining forces and planning to break the strict uniform rules by FIFA, world football’s governing body, and wear them at the World Cup, football’s biggest stage.
On Monday, however, the team said the threat of FIFA discipline had made that impossible. His decision to take direct aim at players at such high-profile events is unprecedented and underlines the tensions he is facing in Qatar. Just three days ago, FIFA angered longtime business partners 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 President, Gianni Infantino; and Qatar, the host country of the tournament. Qatar has been increasingly adamant that the event preserve its traditions and customs. The sale of beer is strictly controlled in Qatar, a conservative Islamic emirate, and homosexuality is a criminal offence.
In discussions over the weekend, teams appeared willing to accept fines for uniform violations. But by Monday they face a new threat, according to a statement issued by the seven European teams, including England, Wales and the Netherlands, who play in their tournament opener on Monday. FIFA, which did not respond to a letter sent by teams in September informing them of their intentions, instead waited hours before the first game to threaten to issue yellow cards to players who wear armbands without permission.
Starting the game with a yellow card means that the player starts playing with the risk of receiving a second during the match. Players can compete with one yellow, but two yellows lead to a red card — resulting in a dismissal and then a suspension for the next match.
As a result, the team said, they had no choice but to ask their players not to risk punishment.
“FIFA is very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captain wears a bandana on the field of play,” the seven-team group said in a joint statement. “As a national federation, we cannot put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked the captain not to try to wear armbands in FIFA World Cup matches.
“We are prepared to pay the fines that are usually imposed on violations of the kit rules and have a strong commitment to wearing the wraps. However, we cannot put our players in a situation where they may be sidelined or have to leave the field of play.”
The statement was issued jointly by the football federations of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“We are deeply disappointed by FIFA’s decision, which we believe is unprecedented,” the federation said. On Sunday, FIFA’s meeting with officials from European federations ended without a resolution and with officials from the countries concerned insisting they would continue. By Monday, that determination seemed to have evaporated, even though the symbol they chose to express their point didn’t match the colors of the Pride flag. Their efforts seem to be trying to satisfy the pressure groups at home while not angering their Qatari hosts. But in the end even that was too much.
Oliver Bierhoff, the director of the German team, which opens the tournament against Japan on Wednesday, said FIFA had “improved” the situation overnight. Germany’s captain, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Bierhoff said, went to bed Sunday “believing he would wear the bandage.” Both Neuer and Kane, the England captain, have spoken publicly about their determination to wear the armband.
But FIFA who has the final say, once again made an 11th hour decision that seems to favor the host country, Qatar. Infantino, the FIFA president, on Saturday backed the Gulf nation’s defense, outlining why criticism of the country was wrong during a nearly hour-long standoff that slammed the European nation for what he described as “hypocritical” and “moral”.
The decision may undermine FIFA’s efforts to highlight its own role in promoting human rights. For example, before the World Cup in Russia in 2018 it partnered with Human Rights Watch to release a message supporting the right of women in Iran to attend matches in stadiums, a long-standing ban that largely remains in place. FIFA’s position at that time was human rights and women’s rights not politics.
The organization has always tried to steer the team away from anything that could be perceived as a political gesture. The rules on whether there is a penalty on the field seem vague enough to encourage teams to go ahead with making a statement.
Bernd Neuendorf, president of the German Football Association, said the decision was “a show of strength from FIFA.”
FIFA said in a statement that it had brought its own “No Discrimination” campaign, which should have started running in the quarter-finals, so that captains could wear armbands emblazoned with the logo for the duration of the World Cup.
Some activist groups responded by criticizing FIFA for covering up what they saw as a sign of weak support for minority groups.
“A gesture from the beginning that has turned into another embarrassment from FIFA,” Pride in Football, a network of British LGBTQ fan groups, wrote on Twitter. “FIFA has had since September to resolve this matter, yet they waited until now to threaten sanctions. FIFA is denying players their fundamental and most basic right to freedom of expression.”
Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organization for fans’ groups, described FIFA’s decision as a betrayal.
“Today we feel contempt for an organization that has shown true value by giving yellow cards to players and red cards to tolerance,” he said in a statement. “Since 2010 we have raised questions about Qatar’s suitability as a World Cup host. Everyone could see this coming, and it’s shocking that, on the morning of England’s World Cup opener, FIFA is trying to censor players to share a positive message.”