FIFA’s threat of on-field punishment for players forced World Cup teams to back down Monday and abandon a plan for their captains to wear armbands seen as a rebuke to host nation Qatar’s human rights record.
Just hours before the first players wearing the armbands in support of the “One Love” campaign were set to take the field, FIFA warned they would be immediately shown yellow cards — changing the calculus for the seven European teams, which may have expected to merely be fined. The displays are a violation of FIFA rules.
The standoff was just the latest dispute that threatened to overshadow the game. Since being awarded the World Cup hosting rights in 2010, conservative Muslim Qatar has faced criticism of its treatment of low-paid migrant workers as well as its criminalization of homosexuality.
The armband decision came three days after beer sales at stadiums were suddenly banned under pressure from the Qatari government and two days after FIFA president Gianni Infantino delivered an extraordinary tirade defending the host nation’s human rights record.
The captains of seven European nations had vowed to wear armbands carrying the heart-shaped, multi-colored logo of the “One Love” campaign, which promotes inclusion and diversity in soccer and society. That set up the prospect of viewers worldwide seeing a symbol of disapproval with the host country and defiance of FIFA on the arms of England’s Harry Kane, the Netherlands’ Virgil van Dijk and Wales’s Gareth Bale on Monday.
Threats of yellow cards
In the end, the teams said they couldn’t sacrifice success on the field. A yellow card is a warning, but two yellows would see a player sent off the field for the rest of the game and banned from the next match — a sanction that is intensified in the World Cup format, where teams play just three games before the elimination rounds begin.
“As national federations we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including bookings,” the seven soccer federations said in a joint statement.
The captains of Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark also pledged to wear the armbands in the coming days.
“Our number one priority at the World Cup is to win the games,” the Dutch soccer federation said in a separate statement. “You don’t want the captain to start the match with a yellow card.”
The risk of getting a second yellow, which would see a player sent off the field for the rest of the game and banned from the next, is particularly tricky in a tournament where teams play just three games before the knockout rounds begin.
National soccer federations and fan associations lashed out at FIFA for its decision to penalize the players. Danish soccer federation head Jakob Jensen told Danish broadcaster TV2 that the organization was “extremely disappointed with FIFA,” and German soccer federation president Bernd Neuendorf called it “another low blow.”
“FIFA today prohibited a statement for diversity and human rights — those are values to which it is committed in its own statutes,” Neuendorf told reporters in Qatar. “From our point of view, this is more than frustrating and, I think, an unprecedented action in World Cup history.”
The global players’ union FIFPRO called the FIFA move “disappointing.”
“Players must have a right to express their support for human rights on and off the field of play and we will support any of them who will use their own platforms to do so,” the union said. “We maintain that a rainbow flag is not a political statement but an endorsement of equality and thus a universal human right.”
England’s Football Supporters Association said it felt betrayed by FIFA.
“Today we feel contempt for an organization that has shown its true values by giving the yellow card to players and the red card to tolerance,” the FSA said.
Gurchaten Sandhu, of the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, said that FIFA put “athletes in a very, very awkward” position.
“You’ve bound the hands of the national teams. They’re there to compete,” he said.
He also criticized Infantino’s speech on Saturday in which the soccer chief defended Qatar and lectured Europeans who have 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 disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker.”
Sandhu took issue with Infantino’s choice of words, saying: “You don’t feel gay. You are gay.”
He also took issue with Infantino’s defense of Qatar on Saturday, during which he lectured Europeans who criticized the emirate’s human rights record and said he “felt” gay, like a woman and like a migrant worker. Rights groups have criticized Qatar’s treatment of those three groups of people.
“You don’t feel gay. You are gay,” Sandhu said.
It wasn’t immediately clear what, if any, influence Qatar’s autocratic government had on the decision. The Qatari 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 clear breach of World Cup regulations and FIFA’s general rules on team equipment at its games, but Danish soccer federation head Jakob Jensen told Danish broadcaster TV2 that the organization was “extremely disappointed with FIFA.”
“They have known about our position for a long time,” Jensen said. “We stand for inclusion, just like FIFA says they stand for inclusion. I don’t see how our message is in conflict with the messages FIFA wants to send.”
FIFA raised the prospect of yellow cards on Sunday during a testy meeting with European soccer federations.
The soccer body’s equipment regulations state: “For FIFA final competitions, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband provided by FIFA.”
Its proposal, announced Saturday, was for captains to wear armbands with socially aware, though generic, slogans. In that offer, armbands reading “No Discrimination” — the only one of its chosen slogan aligned with the European teams’ wish — would appear only at the quarterfinal stage.
On Monday, it offered a compromise, saying captains of all 32 teams “will have the opportunity” to wear an armband with the slogan “No Discrimination” in the group games.