Just hours before the first players wearing the armbands in support of the “One Love” campaign were set to take the field, the governing body of soccer 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 to merely be fined. The displays are a violation of FIFA rules.
The standoff was just 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 of its treatment of low-paid migrant workers and woman 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 angry message defending the host nation’s human rights record.
The captains of seven European nations had vowed to wear armbands carrying the heart-shaped, multi-colored logo of the “One Love” campaign, which promotes inclusion and diversity in soccer and society. That set up the prospect of viewers worldwide seeing a symbol of disapproval with the host country and defiance of FIFA on the arms of England’s Harry 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 number one 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 just three games before the knockout rounds begin.
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.”
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.
It wasn’t immediately clear what, if any, influence Qatar’s autocratic government had on the armband decision. The Qatari 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 a compromise, saying captains of all 32 teams “will have the opportunity” to wear an armband with the slogan “No Discrimination” in the group games.