Doha, Qatar — FIFA’s threat to penalize players on the pitch forced World Cup teams to pull out on Monday, abandoning a plan to have their captains wear armbands, which were seen as a rebuke to hosts Qatar’s human rights record.
Just hours before the first players to take the field with the armbands in support of the ‘One Love’ campaign, the football governing body warned that they would receive immediate yellow cards – two of which resulted in a player being banned from that game and also the next.
That changed the math for the seven European teams, who might have only expected a fine. The displays are against FIFA rules.
No player wore the ‘One Love’ armbands on Monday, although England’s Harry Kane wore the FIFA-approved ‘No Discrimination’ armband in the game against Iran.
It was the last dispute that threatened to overshadow the game on the field. Since winning the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosting rights, conservative Islamist Qatar has faced a lot of criticism, including its treatment of low-wage migrant workers and women and the suppression of freedom of expression. It came under particular fire for its criminalization of homosexuality.
The decision came three days after beer sales in stadiums were suddenly banned under pressure from the Qatari government and two days after FIFA president Gianni Infantino issued an extraordinary diatribe in defense of the host nation’s human rights record.
The captains of seven European countries had vowed to wear bracelets bearing the heart-shaped, multicolored logo of the ‘One Love’ campaign, which promotes inclusion and diversity in football and society. That raised the prospect of viewers around the world seeing a symbol of disapproval of the host nation and opposition to FIFA on the arms of Kane, Virgil van Dijk of the Netherlands and Gareth Bale of Wales on Monday.
But in the end, the teams said they couldn’t sacrifice success on the field.
“As national federations, we cannot put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including bookings,” the seven football federations said in a joint statement, referring to the yellow cards.
The captains of Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark had also promised to wear the bracelets in the coming days.
“Our first priority at the World Cup is to win the games,” the Dutch Football Association said in a separate statement. “Then you don’t want the captain to start the match with a yellow card.”
The risk of a second yellow card, where a player is sent off for the rest of the match and banned for the next match, is particularly tricky in a tournament where teams play just three matches before the knockout rounds begin.
National football federations and fan associations lashed out at FIFA over the decision to penalize the players. The CEO of the Danish Football Association, Jakob Jensen, told Danish broadcaster TV2 that the organization was “extremely disappointed in FIFA”, and the chairman of the German Football Association, Bernd Neuendorf, called it “another low blow”.
“FIFA today banned any statement for diversity and human rights – those are values it commits to in its own statutes,” Neuendorf told reporters in Qatar. “From our point of view, this is beyond frustrating and, I think, an unprecedented move in World Cup history.”
Global players’ union FIFPRO called FIFA’s move “disappointing”.
“Players should have the right to express their support for human rights on and off the field of play and we will support anyone using their own platforms to do so,” the union said. “We argue that a rainbow flag is not a political statement, but an affirmation of equality and thus a universal human right.”
The English Football Supporters Association said it felt betrayed by FIFA.
“Today we feel contempt for an organization that has shown its true values by yellow carding players and red carding tolerance,” the FSA said.
The Belgian federation expressed its frustration that FIFA did not take action sooner to resolve an issue that began two months ago and only came to a head on the morning of matches for three teams. The Europeans have “tried several times not to escalate this initiative … but we have not received a response,” according to the Belgian federation.
Gurchaten Sandhu, of the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, said FIFA has “put athletes in a very, very uncomfortable position”.
“You have tied the hands of the national teams. 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 handicapped. Today I feel like a guest worker.”
Sandhu disagreed with Infantino’s choice of words, saying, “You don’t feel gay. You’re Gay.”
It was not immediately clear what influence Qatar’s autocratic government had on the bracelet 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 violated World Cup regulations and FIFA’s general rules for team equipment at matches.
For FIFA final competitions, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband issued by FIFA.
The football body’s proposal, announced on Saturday, was for captains to wear armbands with socially conscious, if generic, slogans. In that offer, bracelets reading “No Discrimination” – the only one of the chosen slogan that matched the wishes of the European teams – would only appear in the quarterfinals.
On Monday, it offered a compromise, saying captains from all 32 teams “will have the option” of wearing a bracelet with the slogan “No Discrimination” in group matches.
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