DOHA – FIFA's threat of on-field punishment for players pushed World Cup teams to back down Monday and abandon a plan for their captains to wear armbands that were seen as a rebuke to host nation Qatar's human rights record.
Just hours before the first players with the armbands in support of the “One Love” campaign were to take the field, soccer's governing body warned they would immediately be shown yellow cards — two of which lead to a player’s expulsion from that game and also the next.
That changed the calculus for the seven European teams, which may have expected merely to be fined. The displays are a violation of FIFA rules.
No player had the “One Love” armbands Monday, although England's Harry Kane wore the FIFA-approved “No Discrimination” armband that was offered as a compromise in the match with Iran.
It was the latest dispute that threatened to overshadow play on the field. Since being awarded the World Cup hosting rights in 2010, conservative Muslim Qatar has faced a raft of criticism, including its treatment of low-paid migrant workers and women and its suppression of free speech. It came under particular fire for its criminalization of homosexuality.
The 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, multicolored logo of the “One Love” campaign, which promotes inclusion and diversity in soccer and society. That set up the prospect of worldwide viewers seeing a symbol of disapproval with the host country and defiance of FIFA on the arms of Kane, the Netherlands’ Virgil van Dijk and Wales’ Gareth Bale on Monday.
But in the end, the teams said they couldn’t sacrifice success on the field.
“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, referring to the yellow cards.
The captains of Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark had also pledged to wear the armbands in the coming days.
“Our No. 1 priority at the World Cup is to win the games,” the Dutch soccer federation said in a separate statement. “Then 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 only three games before the knockout rounds begin.
“One thing is clear: We are not going to wear the armband if we are going to get a yellow card," said Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal. "And I think that we need to question whether this is a correct act on the part of FIFA. I think you can give the answer to that question.”
National soccer federations and fan associations lashed out at FIFA for its decision to penalize the players. Danish soccer federation CEO 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.
The Belgium federation expressed frustration that FIFA didn't act sooner to resolve an issue that began two months ago, only to come to a head on the morning of matches for three teams. The Europeans “tried several times to avoid escalating this initiative ... but we have had no response,” the Belgian federation said.
Manon Aubry of France, the president of the Left group at the European Parliament, wore the rainbow armband Monday during a debate on human rights in the context of the World Cup.
“Shame on those who did not allow armbands — ‘One Love’ armbands — to support the LGBTQI. I’m proud to wear that armband here,” said Aubry, who was reprimanded for wearing it inside the Parliament, where such displays are not allowed during plenary sessions.
Gurchaten Sandhu, of the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, said 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 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.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what, if any, influence Qatar’s autocratic government had on the armband 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 were in breach of World Cup regulations and FIFA’s general rules on team equipment at its games.
“For FIFA final competitions, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband provided by FIFA,” its equipment regulations state.
The soccer body's 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 the compromise that captains of all 32 teams “will have the opportunity” to wear an armband with the slogan “No Discrimination” in the group games.
Brazil's players were not planning any type of protest but striker Richarlison said he would “support anything that other players or national teams were doing.”
“We live in a dangerous world where you are not allowed to have an opinion,” he said at Brazil’s training camp. “I support any cause out there.”