As much as FIFA wishes this wasn't the case, sport and activism are as old as Adam; from John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. And then there's the fact that, although it may look otherwise, the football field, as much as the boxing ring and tennis and basketball courts, are places of diplomacy, where international relations unfold and trade deals are sealed. So the argument that the OneLove armbands are unnecessarily dragging politics into sport, feels flimsy to say the least.
In case you haven't been following the tension brewing around the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, here's a brief rundown. People are understandably riled up that the World Cup is being held in Qatar, a country which still criminalises homosexuality and has a blemished track record when it comes to other human rights issues, like its treatment of women and migrant workers. (Although, I think it important to note here that Australia and other western nations aren't without their own questionable history on these issues, either).
For months, there's been discussion of potential protests or political demonstrations, and as the World Cup kicked off on November 20, a coalition of European teams consisting of England, Wales, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland announced that they had been forced to ditch plans for their captains to wear a rainbow OneLove armband in support of LGBTIQ+ inclusion, following warnings from FIFA that anyone who wears the armband risks sanctions, and players would receive immediate yellow cards.
“As national federations we can’t let our players face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked our captains not to wear the armbands in FIFA World Cup games,” the statement read. The teams also noted that they were prepared to receive fines for breaching kit regulations but they would not afford to have players receive yellow cards or be ejected from the field. We're "very frustrated with FIFA, and believe this is unprecedented,” the statement continued, adding that they had notified FIFA of their plans back in September but had received no response.
Meanwhile, FIFA has put forward its own alternative armband initiative, encouraging participating teams to don armbands with vague, feeble slogans like “Football unites the world,” “Share the meal,” and “Bring the moves".
In response to the crackdown on political statements, ahead of the match against Japan, the German team posed for a photo with their hands covering their mouths to represent being silenced by FIFA, and the German Federation president, Bernd Neuendorf, has described the ban as an “outrageous demonstration of power from Fifa”.
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The first openly gay Australian soccer player in the A league, Josh Cavallo also condemned FIFA's decision in an Instagram post, which read, "FIFA. I love my identity. Seeing you have banned all teams to wear the One Love Armband to actively support LGBTQ+ at the world cup. You have lost my respect!"
"All the work my fellow allies and the LGBTQ+ community are doing to make football inclusive, you have shown that football isn’t a place for everyone," the post concluded.
Meanwhile, in a clumsy 57-minute speech FIFA president, Gianni Infantino called out the hypocrisy of the west's anger, while also skirting over the legitimate human rights concerns, urging that people direct their criticisms at him but not Qatar. "Let people enjoy this World Cup.”
While I do believe there is an argument to be made here about what true activism looks like, and the sacrifices people must be willing to make to get a point across and create meaningful change, which would include copping a yellow card or a sanction, the gag on speaking out is alarming. It's clear that almost a week into the 2022 FIFA World Cup, tensions are at an all time high. Let's just hope that the teams have the bandwidth and creativity to protest in other ways.