This strangest World Cup continues to generate more controversy and ill feeling off the park than on it. Day two yesterday delivered another shock with the tournament organisers, Fifa, threatening yellow cards, even before a ball is kicked, for team captains taking to the field wearing armbands showing solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.
As agreed last September the captains of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland had intended to wear the OneLove rainbow armbands to promote diversity and inclusion at the World Cup. England captain Harry Kane said it was a united message against all forms of unfair discrimination and sending a signal that the world was watching.
Fifa’s coercive ban on player armbands is another shameful episode in what has become a rolling series of fiascos associated with this World Cup.
Calls to put the focus on football have a hollow ring given the many arrogant and insensitive acts by the host nation, Qatar, and Fifa, who appear prisoners of their hosts.
Qatar has been under world scrutiny in the lead-up to the tournament over its attitude to human rights. There were concerns over the conditions for migrant workers amid reports of alarming building worker death tolls.
The conservative Middle Eastern state’s stance on LGBTQ+ people was also a cause of controversy. Sex between men is prohibited in Qatar and can be punished with up to seven years in prison, according to a report for the US State Department.
Netherlands’ national football side came up with the idea of the so-called OneLove campaign, with team captains wearing a rainbow armband of solidarity. Yesterday, hours before they were due to play, the Dutch football association, KNVB, confirmed their captain would receive a yellow card – before any play – if he wore this armband.
Very reluctantly the Dutch and other football associations felt they had no option but to relent. One yellow card at the outset would leave the team captains vulnerable to receiving a second sanction and being sent off.
The legal basis for Fifa’s threat remained unclear. There was speculation it relied upon Article 4.3 of regulations which bans clothing or equipment deemed “dangerous, offensive or indecent” or include “political, religious or personal slogans”.
As a sop, the teams are instead to wear a Fifa “no discrimination” motif which was originally only to be worn from the quarter-final phase.
Frequently, people have to make a sacrifice if they truly believe in something. Even the most passionate sports fans will acknowledge that there are core values in life more important even than sport.
Taking a stand against shameful inequality and discrimination against a person’s sexual orientation is surely more important than sport. But the real point here is that it should not have come down to a straight choice between the two.
The sad outcome of this latest episode is that, while most people still say there are things more important than sport, this actually shows sport can trump equality.