Rainbow armbands are new flashpoint for FIFA and Qatar World Cup

Rainbow armbands are new flashpoint for FIFA and Qatar World Cup
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The group of European football federations announced their intention to have their captains wear the armbands. PHOTO: REUTERS

Fifa and World Cup organisers came under pressure on Wednesday from a group of European football federations that said they planned to have their captains wear armbands with a rainbow heart design as part of an anti-discrimination campaign during international matches and at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The group of European football federations, which includes World Cup contenders England, Germany and France, joined forces on Wednesday in announcing their intention to have their captains wear the armbands, which feature a so-called One Love design that is similar in design – but not identical – to the well-known flag that serves as a symbol of LGBTQ pride.

The Dutch football federation, which has played a leading role in the campaign, said that eight European teams that have qualified for Qatar would take part and that two others would wear the armbands in coming national team matches in a European competition, the Nations League. The group of national federations includes the teams of Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Wales, Sweden and Switzerland.

Sending a ‘clear message’

The announcement is the latest front in a rift between football governing bodies and nations competing in Qatar that have faced sustained pressure from fans, human rights groups and others to take a stand against the Gulf country’s laws against homosexuality and the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of foreign labourers who helped the tiny emirate prepare for the Middle East’s first World Cup.

The armbands have not yet been approved by football’s governing body, Fifa, which has strict rules on how teams can be dressed at the World Cup, and on the insertion of politics and social issues onto the field of play. The decision by the federations to apply public pressure highlights the fine line that competing teams – as well as Fifa and its sponsors – are trying to navigate in balancing the demands of their fans and human rights groups while not upsetting Qatar, a conservative Muslim nation and the tournament’s host.

“Wearing the armband together on behalf of our teams will send a clear message when the world is watching,” the England captain Harry Kane said in a statement.

The armbands’ design, while using rainbow colours, stops short of matching the more common Pride flag. Qatari officials have long said that all fans are welcome at the month-long tournament in November and December, but security officials there also have warned supporters not to travel with the rainbow flag for their own safety, and it remains unclear how same-sex couples will be treated when it comes to policing and accommodation.

For Fifa, the armbands are merely the latest lightning rod for a tournament that has stirred controversy and disquiet since Qatar was first awarded hosting rights in December 2010. Earlier this week, the Polish captain Robert Lewandowski, the reigning Fifa player of the year, accepted an armband in the colours of Ukraine’s flag from the Ukrainian football great Andriy Shevchenko. He said he would carry it with him to Qatar.

Poland was among the European nations that said they would not play against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February. Fifa eventually banned Russia from playing international football, a decision that led to its elimination from the World Cup qualification playoffs.

Fifa managed to fend off Russia’s appeal against the ban by arguing that it could not organise the World Cup if a large number of teams refused to play the country. The same strength-in-numbers rationale may have been behind the decision by the group of Europeans nations to have their captains wear the rainbow armbands.

“Football is there for everyone, and our sport must stand up for the people across the world who face discrimination and exclusion,” said Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who captains his national team. “I am proud to be sending out this message with my colleagues from the other national teams. Every single voice counts.”

PDAs allowed but fans urged to respect cultural norms too

Separately, English Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham says he has been told that LGBTQ+ fans will not be arrested for public displays of affection (PDAs) such as holding hands or kissing in public at the World Cup.

The LGBTQ+ community had raised concerns over how safe they will be at the tournament in November-December as homosexuality is illegal in the Gulf state.

But Bullingham revealed on Wednesday that he has been told police in Qatar have been briefed to be tolerant during the tournament. And on Tuesday, Qatar’s ruler said that all fans will be welcomed to this year’s World Cup “without discrimination”.

Sheikh Tamim Hamad al-Thani told the United Nations General Assembly that Qatar’s people would be “opening our doors for all (fans) without discrimination to enjoy the football matches and the amazing atmosphere of the tournament”.

However, organising committee and government officials have said that the million plus fans expected to attend the World Cup should respect local cultural norms.

It was a point Bullingham also addressed.

Asked whether the FA had planned for the scenario of an England fan being arrested for holding hands or kissing a same-sex partner in public, he said: “We have been asking those questions of the Qatari authorities over the last six months.

“They have absolutely told us all the right answers for anything we’ve talked about, even down to the point of ‘Are rainbow flags allowed?’

“Yes, absolutely (they are allowed) as long as someone doesn’t go and drape them on the outside of a mosque – that was one example we were given – and were disrespectful in that way.

“But they have absolutely been briefed to be very tolerant and act in the right way. Any time we ask a direct question we tend to get an answer.”

Despite those assurances, FA chiefs are still requesting more detail from the local organising committee that all fans, including those from the LGBTQ+ community, will be safe and secure in Qatar.

 NYTIMES, AFP

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