FIFA’s threat to punish players on the pitch forced World Cup teams to backtrack on Monday and abandon a plan for their captains to wear armbands, which was seen as a reprimand for host country Qatar’s human rights record.
Just hours before the first players wearing the armbands in support of the One Love campaign were due to take the field, FIFA warned they would be immediately shown a yellow card – changing the calculus for the seven European teams , which may have expected only to be fined. The displays violate FIFA rules.
The standoff was just the latest dispute that threatened to overshadow the game. Since conservative-Muslim Qatar won the rights to host the World Cup in 2010, it has faced criticism for its treatment of low-paid migrant workers and 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 delivered an extraordinary tirade in defense of the host country’s human rights record.
The captains of seven European nations had vowed to wear armbands with the heart-shaped multicolored logo of the “One Love” campaign, which promotes inclusion and diversity in football and in society. That raised the prospect that viewers worldwide would see the arms of England’s Harry Kane, Dutchman Virgil van Dijk and Wales player Gareth Bale as a symbol of host country disapproval and opposition to FIFA on Monday.
But in the end, teams said they couldn’t sacrifice success on the field. A yellow card is a caution, but two yellows would result in a player being sent off for the rest of the game and suspended for the next game – a sanction tightened in the World Cup format, where teams are just three games ahead play rounds begin after elimination.
“As national associations, we cannot put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including warnings,” the seven football associations said in a joint statement.
The captains of Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark had also agreed to wear the armbands in the coming days.
“Our top priority at the World Cup is to win the matches,” the Dutch Football Association said in a separate statement. “Then you don’t want the captain to start the game with a yellow card.”
England’s Football Supporters Association said it felt cheated by FIFA.
“Today we feel contempt for an organization that has shown its true values by giving players the yellow card and tolerance the red card,” the FSA said.
Gurchaten Sandhu, from the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, said FIFA is putting “athletes in a very, very awkward” position.
“They have tied the hands of the national teams. They are there to compete,” he said.
It was initially not clear what influence Qatar’s autocratic government had on the decision. The Qatar government and its Supreme Delivery and Legacy Committee, which oversees the World Cup, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The European plans clearly flouted World Cup regulations and FIFA’s general rules on team kits at their matches, but Danish Football Association chairman Jakob Jensen told Danish broadcaster TV2 that the organization was “extremely disappointed in 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 conflicts with the messages FIFA wants to send.”
FIFA promised yellow cards in a sensitive meeting with European football associations on Sunday.
The Football Association Kit Regulations state: “At FIFA final tournaments, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband provided by FIFA.”
Her proposal, announced on Saturday, called for captains to wear armbands with socially conscious, if generic, slogans. In this offer, armbands reading ‘No Discrimination’ – the only chosen slogan reflecting the desire of European teams – would only appear in the quarter-finals.
On Monday it offered a compromise, saying captains of all 32 teams “will have the option” to wear an armband with the slogan “No Discrimination” in group matches.
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