Seven European teams have abandoned plans for their captains to wear rainbow-themed armbands at the World Cup after FIFA threatened to issue yellow cards to any players who did so.
The climbdown came just hours before England’s Harry Kane, the Netherlands’ Virgil van Dijk and Wales’ Gareth Bale were due to wear the “OneLove” armbands in Monday’s group-stage games.
Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany had also originally planned to take part in the campaign, which backers said was aimed at promoting inclusion.
But the seven football associations said in a joint statement that they couldn’t sacrifice success on the field for the initiative, which had also been widely viewed as a protest against laws in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal.
“FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play,” the associations said in a joint statement.
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,” the governing body’s equipment regulations state.
The associations said they had written to FIFA in September to notify the Switzerland-based organisation of their plans involving the “OneLove” armband but had not received any response.
They added they had been prepared to “pay fines” that would typically apply to breaches of kit regulations, but could not put their players “in the situation where they might be booked, or even forced to leave the field of play”.
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.
“We are very frustrated by the FIFA decision, which we believe is unprecedented,” the football associations’ statement said.
‘Freedom of speech being crushed by FIFA’
The developments attracted swift and scathing criticism from groups representing the LGBTQ community and rights groups.
“More than disappointing that @FIFAWorldCup and @FIFAcom silence & deflection means European captains face starting games with yellow cards for trying to highlight issues around human rights,” 3LionsPride, a group representing England fans, tweeted.
“Their basic rights to freedom of speech & expression being crushed by FIFA.”
More than disappointing that @FIFAWorldCup @FIFAcom silence & deflection means European captains face starting games with yellow cards for trying to highlight issues around human rights. Their basic rights to freedom of speech & expression being crushed by FIFA #NoPrideWithoutAll
— 3LIONSPRIDE 🌈🦁🦁🦁⚽️🏴🏳️🌈 (@3Lionspride) November 21, 2022
England’s Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) said it felt contempt for FIFA.
“To paraphrase FIFA president Gianni Infantino – today LGBT+ football supporters and their allies will feel angry,” it said, citing his monologue on the eve of the tournament aimed at media criticising the decision to stage the World Cup in Qatar.
“Today we feel betrayed. Today we feel contempt for an organisation that has shown its true values by giving the yellow card to players and the red card to tolerance.”
Amnesty International said FIFA was failing to uphold its own values and responsibilities.
“Sport does not happen in a vacuum and these are issues on which FIFA should be leading, not cracking down on,” Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s Head of Economic and Social Justice, said.
“Agreements on armbands, and better protections for LGBTI communities, should have been reached a long time ago. We applaud the courage of teams and players who have spoken out about human rights and we hope they continue to do so,” he added.
FIFA brings forward ‘no discrimination’ campaign
FIFA launched its own captain’s armband campaign ahead of the tournament to promote different causes for each round.
On Monday it said had brought forward its own “No Discrimination” from the planned quarter-finals stage in order that all 32 captains will have the opportunity to wear its own armband during the tournament.
“This is in line with Article 13.8.1 of the FIFA Equipment Regulations, which state: ‘For FIFA Final Competitions, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband provided by FIFA’,” the football governing body said in a statement.
Some, including former England footballer Stan Collymore, called for the national sides to disregard FIFA’s position and instead make a stand and have their captains wear the armbands.
Wear it Skipper. Take everything thrown at you. It's about more than Football.
It's about everyone's right to feel safe in our sport. pic.twitter.com/pbqfYN7UrC
— Stan Collymore (@StanCollymore) November 21, 2022
But German Football Association president Bernd Neuendorf said it was unfair for the players to shoulder the responsibility for any potential consequences if they decided to wear it anyway.
“We are witnessing a case with no precedent in World Cup history,” Neuendorf said.
The criminalisation of same-sex relations in Qatar has been a long-running controversy in the build-up to the World Cup.
Former Qatari international footballer and World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman sparked outrage earlier this month after calling homosexuality “damage in the mind” during an interview with a German media outlet.
Qatar has repeatedly stated that everyone was welcome to attend the tournament.