This year we see the return of the FIFA World Cup, despite the usual hype surrounding this event is pretty dim. Watching the tournament on a December evening with three deadlines looming, rather than in a pub garden on a warm summer’s night? The first winter World Cup will no doubt be the last. However, instead of football being centre stage during the tournament, we have seen multiple political debates raging between FIFA, the teams involved, and the fans. The true corrupt and dictatorial nature of FIFA has come to light with multiple issues: most notably the OneLove armband affair, again.
The Qatar World Cup has been a topic of controversy since it was announced back in 2010. Not only was there supposed corruption surrounding the bid from Qatar but a lack of human rights in the country has been highlighted throughout the tournament. The criminalisation of the LGBTQ+ community has been the main focal point. It is illegal to be homosexual in Qatar and is a crime that is punishable by life imprisonment or, in some cases, the death penalty. Despite this, World Cup organisers assured fans that Qatar was a “tolerant country” and would welcome all fans with welcome arms. On the other hand, LGBTQ+ fans were told to “tone down their homosexuality in public” which does not exactly scream tolerance to me. The British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, suggested that LGBTQ+ fans “should be respectful of the host nation.” Cleverly even went to say that “with a little compromise, it can be a safe, secure and exciting World Cup.”
The OneLove armband was originally launched by the Royal Dutch Football Federation in 2020 as part of an inclusivity campaign. In September, eight of the 62 competing nations in the World Cup stated that they would wear the armband in protest of the anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Qatar. The countries included England, Wales, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and The Netherlands. England captain, Harry Kane, was very outspoken on his desire to wear the armband: “Wearing the armband together on behalf of our teams will send a clear message when the world is watching.”
Then why, only two hours before England’s first game of the tournament vs Iran, was there a dramatic U-turn? A protest that was supposedly so important to these eight teams was suddenly put on hold. FIFA rules stipulate that all team equipment and kit should not have any political, religious, or personal slogans, statements or images. Even the Belgian team had to change their kit for the sole reason that it sported the word ‘Love’.
FIFA threatened all eight captains from the teams with a yellow card before kick-off for wearing the armband as it violated regulations. It was at this point that The Football Association (FA) from each respective country decided to backtrack on their strong values. It seems for the FA, paying the inevitable fine for rule breaking was acceptable but they drew the line at the risk of a yellow card for their players. It is evident the message the FA have sent out; we don’t see LGBTQ+ rights to be as valuable as a yellow card.
The U-turn by the FA has been rightly received with backlash from fans and footballing stars. Ex-Liverpool player and sports pundit, Jamie Carragher, branded the England team as “weak” for pulling out of the protest. Carragher viewed the potential punishment of a yellow card as an incentive to continue with the protest rather than a deterrent: “it would only strengthen the campaign”. His colleague, Ian Wright, correctly stated that a protest is no longer a protest if there is no element of risk. Even in this demonstration of protest, the potential risk seemed rather meek compared to the risk that LGBTQ+ fans face when coming to Qatar.
Ex-England captain and sports pundit, Alex Scott, risked more than a yellow card as a queer, woman of colour for publicly wearing the OneLove armband whilst pitchside. In times such as these, a footballing legend, such as David Beckham, could be instrumental in these forms of protest. However, the self-proclaimed LGBTQ+ ally has instead signed a contract with the organisers of the World Cup to promote the tournament, despite the ongoing political debates.
The OneLove armband was always a performative way of protesting against the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in the host country. However, it meant that players and teams were publicly acknowledging the issue. Backing out at the first hint of adversity contradicts the entire motive behind a protest. Football teams could be some of the most influential methods for positive change, especially in an environment where coming out as gay is still incredibly difficult to do.
Earlier this year, Blackpool FC’s Jake Daniels, at the age of 17, became the UK’s first male professional footballer to come out publicly as gay. The FA responded to Daniel’s news with a tweet stating that “Football is a game for all, with diversity at its heart… This is a hugely positive step as we strive to build an inclusive game that we can all be proud of.” A message is seemingly forgotten by the FA when they decided that protesting for LGBTQ+ rights was less important than players receiving a yellow card. It then comes as no surprise that Pride organisations are staging a World Cup boycott.
Manchester Pride has also joined this protest. From asking bars and venues not to screen matches to joining Stonewall’s virtual ‘Proud Stadium’. This boycott highlights how many have been left with no choice but to give this tournament a miss.
Now that we are halfway through the World Cup, it can be easy just to simply focus on the football. However, when the biggest sporting competition on the planet is in a country which disregards the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people, we have to question how this has happened. It is a major setback in the fight for a more inclusive game.