Before the World Cup, FIFA president Gianni Infantino urged the 32 teams bound for Qatar that they should “let football take center stage” and “focus on the football,” but just days into the tournament, that desire hasn’t exactly gone to plan.
First, there was the last-minute ban on alcohol inside and around stadiums. Then, there were scores of empty seats midway through the game as host nation Qatar lost to Ecuador. On Monday, a major row between FIFA and seven European nations has ended with those countries ditching plans for their captains to wear a special anti-discrimination armband at the last minute.
Just over three hours before England kicked off against Iran in their Group B opener at Khalifa International Stadium, the countries involved — England, Wales, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark — issued a joint statement confirming they would not wear the OneLove armband after learning each captain would receive a yellow card at kick-off.
FIFA has insisted that the yellow card sanction was communicated as a possible consequence prior to the past 48 hours, but regardless of what you believe, a tournament mired in controversy for years in the build-up continues to be overshadowed by off-field problems even after the matches have started.
What is the OneLove armband?
Amid widespread concern about Qatar’s human rights record, various European nations held talks over whether an agreement could be found for a collective gesture during international matches.
Led by the Netherlands Football Association (known as the KNVB), sources have told ESPN that 10 nations were in contact — the seven mentioned above plus Norway, Sweden and France. In September, nine nations (without France) announced the creation of the OneLove armband, designed to “use the power of football to promote inclusion and send a message against discrimination of any kind as the eyes of the world fall on the global game,” as the accompanying news release stated at the time. In response, UEFA confirmed in a statement that it “fully supports” the OneLove campaign, adding it had “also approved the use of the armbands during the September international window, for those associations who reached out to us.”
Significantly, that swift approval — UEFA tend to reject anything from member nations that could be interpreted as a political statement — meant there were no detailed discussions held over possible repercussions when this same plan was applied to the World Cup, a tournament run by FIFA. Sources have told ESPN that the regulations for a Euros, for example, are fairly broad and UEFA would have provided the guidance on the relevant issues relating to the use of “special equipment,” which is how the armbands would have been classified.
So why was it such an issue at the World Cup?
The Qatar Supreme Committee and FIFA have repeatedly insisted “everyone is welcome” amid concerns over the treatment of LGBTQIA+ people in the Gulf state. Same-sex relationships are illegal in the country and in some instances punishable by death, making the use of a rainbow armband an acutely sensitive topic.
The KNVB’s explanation for how the OneLove heart colours were decided: red/black/green were for all, regardless of heritage or background, and pink/yellow/blue were used to reflect all gender and sexual identities. The seven nations involved that qualified for Qatar — Norway and Sweden missed out — made it clear a long time before the tournament that they planned to wear the armband in Qatar, and it appeared as though the only consequence was a FIFA fine that the relevant associations had indicated they were happy to pay.
However, as the teams arrived in Qatar and began their preparations, rumours began to circulate of a possible yellow card sanction for every captain. So the rumours went, if they chose to wear the armband, they would walk out on the pitch for the start of the game and, at kick-off, be shown a yellow card. FIFA did not publicly confirm things as accurate until early Monday morning, despite repeated requests for comment, which left little time for discussion among the nations taking part in this action.
Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, whose position on the field makes the risk of a yellow card more minimal, insisted he would wear the armband regardless. On Sunday, Netherlands skipper Virgil van Dijk was less enthusiastic about discussing the situation yet again but nevertheless reiterated his support. Around the same time, England boss Gareth Southgate privately believed the issue was settled, and a few hours later, Harry Kane confirmed his intention to wear the armband regardless.
Mark Ogden reacts to the news that players won’t wear the OneLove armband after FIFA confirmed sanctions would be taken against a player for wearing one.
Sources have told ESPN that the English FA had been in dialogue with FIFA, but there had been no mention of Kane being booked for the gesture as of Sunday evening in Qatar. And so when conversations continued on Monday morning between FIFA and the national associations, FIFA confirmed that captains would be booked and it was clear the sporting sanction was too much of a risk.
In theory, each captain could be banned twice during the tournament if booked in all seven matches, and that’s before considering the obvious disciplinary tightrope they would walk in every game to avoid committing another bookable offense. Per FIFA rules, a player booked in the first two matches of the group stage would miss the third group game. He would then be eligible to return for the last 16, but bookings at that stage and in the quarterfinal would mean a player misses the semi-final (if their team advanced), setting the stage for their return in the final.
So what does it mean for the rest of the tournament and the ongoing political backdrop?
Monday’s about-face only serves to enhance the nagging suspicions that FIFA and Qatar are only willing to promote diversity and inclusion if it’s on their terms. Just one day before the tournament, FIFA announced its own version of anti-discrimination armbands in a “No Discrimination” campaign. On Monday, they also ordered Belgium to remove the “love” message from the collar of their shirts with no room for discussion.
The various nations are not happy. German FA chief Bernd Neuendorf described FIFA’s threat of sporting sanctions as an “unprecedented demonstration of power,” a view sources suggest is reflected by multiple associations. However, FIFA insists those nations should not have been surprised.
Article 13.8.1 of the FIFA Equipment Regulations states: “For FIFA Final Competitions, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband provided by FIFA.” A media release on Monday added that: “FIFA is an inclusive organisation that wants to put football to the benefit of society by supporting good and legitimate causes, but it has to be done within the framework of the competition regulations which are known to everyone.”
Regardless, it is another off-field problem that underlines the long-standing tensions between the typical values of a World Cup and Qatar’s culture. In their joint statements, the seven nations said: “Our players and coaches are disappointed. They are strong supporters of inclusion and will show support in other ways.” This row might not be over yet.