World Cup 2022: Teams scrap rainbow-colored armband plan after FIFA threatens ‘sporting sanctions’

DOHA, Qatar — Seven European teams have scrapped plans to wear rainbow-colored anti-discrimination captains' armbands at the 2022 World Cup after FIFA threatened them with “sporting sanctions,” the teams said in a joint statement Monday.

England, Wales and others had said months ago, and as recently as Sunday, that their captains would wear the “One Love” armbands, which are part of a broader campaign originally launched by the Dutch soccer federation (KNBV) against discrimination. “The colors in the heart of the logo represent everyone's pride in their own origin, color, gender identity and sexual orientation,” the KNBV said in September.

FIFA, though, did not respond to or engage with the European federations until this past weekend, on the eve of the tournament. And when it did, it was “very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play,” the European nations, which also include Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, said in their statement.

“We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband,” the statement continued. “However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play.”

The seven nations, plus France and two others not at the World Cup, adopted the campaign ahead of the 2022 tournament, implicitly in light of Qatari laws that restrict, among other things, LGBTQ rights. Qatar’s penal code punishes gay sex and “leading, instigating, or seducing a male to commit sodomy or dissipation” with multiple years in prison.

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 21: Thilo Kehrer and Jonas Hofmann pose with the team's captain's armband for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 during a Germany press conference at DFB-Campus on September 21, 2022 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)
FIFA's threats of sanctions were enough to deter seven countries from wearing these “One Love” armbands at the World Cup in Qatar. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

World Cup organizers have said that “everybody is welcome” during the tournament, but fans remained worried; Qatari laws have not been repealed or suspended; and LGBTQ people in Qatar and elsewhere still face discrimination.

The armbands — which read “ONE LOVE” and display a heart with an array of colors similar, though not identical, to the ones that represent LGBTQ pride — were seen as a significant statement of solidarity with the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups. They were intended “to actively support inclusion in football,” the European teams said.

Instead, on the eve of the tournament, and in partnership with United Nations agencies, FIFA announced its own campaign featuring captains armbands. FIFA said in a news release that “messaging opportunities will be provided to the participating teams via” different armbands for each round of games.

The uniform messages are: “#FootballUnitesTheWorld,” “#SaveThePlanet,” “#ProtectChildren,” “#ShareTheMeal,” “#EducationForAll,” “#FootballForSchools,” “#NoDiscrimination,” “#BeActive,” “#BringTheMoves.” There are none that specifically support LGBTQ rights or labor rights, the Qatar World Cup’s two most contentious topics.

It’s unclear whether FIFA’s armbands are optional or required. (FIFA did not respond to a Sunday request for comment.) The “One Love” armbands, however, could have run afoul of FIFA rules that restrict activism. FIFA’s equipment regulations bar any “item” that “FIFA considers … dangerous, offensive or indecent,” or that “includes political, religious, or personal slogans, statements, or images.”

While many Westerners would consider the broad anti-discrimination message behind the “One Love” armbands apolitical, many in Qatar and elsewhere around the world would take exception. FIFA has, on matters ranging from alcohol to labor rights, had to balance the interests and sensibilities of the West with those of Qatar.

“We have clear regulations on armbands,” Infantino said when asked about them on Saturday. “We have and engage in campaigns on different topics, campaigns which are universal. We need to find topics that everyone can adhere to. This is an important element for us.”

Infantino, though, has been accused of parroting Qatari government messages and caving to the royal family, his hosts, as the World Cup approached. The threat of sanctions for the armbands has been framed by critics as the latest example.

“Today LGBT+ football supporters and their allies will feel angry. Today we feel betrayed,” the Football Supporters’ Association, an umbrella group representing fans in England and Wales, said in a statement. “Today we feel contempt for an organization [FIFA] that has shown its true values by giving the yellow card to players and the red card to tolerance.”

As the European teams implicitly mentioned, there is nothing in FIFA’s statutes or World Cup regulations that call for “sporting sanctions” for uniform violations. The typical sanctions, in other cases, have been fines. The threat of yellow cards appears to be above and beyond the laws of the game.

“We are very frustrated by the FIFA decision which we believe is unprecedented,” the European teams said in their statement. “Our players and coaches are disappointed — they are strong supporters of inclusion and will show support in other ways.