Iran’s captain clearly knows what it means to have values. In the press conference before today’s match against England, Ehsan Hajsafi condemned his country’s backwards attitude towards women and the brutal way in which the Iranian regime has responded to recent protests for women’s rights. He told the assembled press that the regime’s treatment of women was ‘not right’. Despite knowing that speaking out could come at significant personal cost, with Iran threatening to execute protesters at home, Hajsafi did so, putting his values and the rights of Iranian women first.
It is a shame that Harry Kane and the rest of the team couldn’t summon up an iota of the courage displayed by Hajsafi. England’s captain, and the captains of six other European nations, had promised to wear a rainbow armband during their matches as a part of the Netherlands’ ‘One Love’ campaign, protesting against Qatar’s criminalisation of homosexuality. There was always going to be some pushback against this. Many thought that it wasn’t enough, and that England shouldn’t be there at all, and that western nations should have boycotted the event because of Qatar’s appalling human rights record. Others were dismissive of any protest at all, whether because campaigns like ‘One Love’ were just platitudes, or because major world events have recently been held in countries guilty of greater iniquity than Qatar, like the 2018 World Cup in Russia or the Winter Olympics earlier this year in China.
Regardless of which side you fall on, England’s response to FIFA’s ultimatum was pathetic. Despite having said that they were willing to face sanctions for the campaign, the English FA (and the football associations of the other involved nations) dropped the policy the moment FIFA threatened to order referees to yellow-card captains wearing the armband. Setting aside the question of whether FIFA had the authority to control referees so blatantly, the consequences of Kane or another player receiving a yellow card were apparently so great that resistance could not even be contemplated. Instead, the involved football associations put out a joint statement saying that ‘we can’t let our players face sporting sanctions’ before vacuously expressing their frustrations with FIFA.
It isn’t clear why players could not risk sporting sanctions for upholding their values. As Hajsafi showed, values only mean something if you defend them when the going gets tough. Otherwise, they’re just baubles, hung up in the hope they make you look good. If the players really believed in the campaign, the England team should have called FIFA’s bluff regardless of the FA’s position. Indeed, rather than Kane alone walking on with the armband, an even greater act of defiance would have been for the whole team to don the armband, daring the referee to uphold FIFA’s decision and sanction them.
The referee raising a yellow card, one by one, in front of all eleven England players before a ball had even been kicked would have attracted headlines all around the world, drawing even more attention to the campaign and to Qatar’s treatment of the LGBTQ community. It may have hurt England’s chances in the tournament, but it would have emphasised that some things matter slightly more than football.
The irony is that had the Netherlands not embarked on this quixotic campaign, it’s unlikely that the issue would have ever come up. Qatar has an appalling human rights record on almost every front, whether how it treats women – by treating them as chattels of their fathers or husbands – or how it treats migrant workers – by expecting them to die so that they can host the World Cup. Players could have had armbands up and down their arms and legs and still would have run out of space before they condemned every iniquity committed by the host nation. Instead, by paying lip service to gay rights, all the Dutch have managed is to get the world talking about how western nations are not even willing to risk a yellow card in defence of the right for people to love whoever they want.
While all of the involved nations seem cowardly, FIFA, as ever, has come off particularly badly. In some ways, managing to find new ways to disgrace themselves is an achievement. Having awarded the tournament to a nation with no footballing history, no sporting infrastructure, and a climate that could not be less suitable for football if it tried, and with their president having embarrassed himself with a bizarre rant before the world’s press over the weekend, most observers must have thought that they couldn’t descend any lower.
Instead, we find ourselves here. Perhaps FIFA have decided that, having enraged the whole world already, the only thing to aim for is keeping Qatar’s ruling al Thani family happy, no matter the cost.
Superficially, FIFA have based their decision on the Rules of the Game, which governs professional football. Under Chapter 4, players are prohibited from wearing ‘equipment’ which has any ‘political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images’. At first glance, FIFA are on firmer ground here. While the question of who someone loves should hardly be a political matter, it would be disingenuous to claim that gay rights are not still a live political question, or that the One Love campaign was not trying to answer it.
At the same time, the rules of the game say nothing about cautions just for walking on the pitch, which is what FIFA threatened the captains with. Instead, it is only after a player attempts to return to the pitch without permission, having been ordered by the referee to leave and ‘correct the equipment’, that a caution ‘must’ be given. And even if you accept that FIFA could have threatened just this, their intolerant response sits uneasily with the armband campaign supporting human rights that was already underway – including an armband against discrimination that players were due to wear in the quarter-final matches. Holding that players can wear political slogans against discrimination in one narrow, preapproved way, but in no other way looks awfully like trying FIFA trying to have their cake and eat it. (As does the fact that armbands like this are commonly worn in FIFA regulated football leagues across the world without being prohibited).
In many ways, this armband controversy is a storm in a teacup. When hundreds of migrant workers have died in order to bring about the World Cup, and thousands of others have been living and working in inhumane conditions, and when countries like Iran and China, who are persecuting their citizens, freely participate in the tournament, the question of armbands pales in significance. After all, no one thinks that Qatar will become more tolerant of homosexuality because Harry Kane wears an armband proclaiming ‘One Love’.
But values are supposed to mean something. England and other nations could have done this by boycotting the event, showing the world that the wealthy can’t simply buy what they want. Having failed to do this, the armbands were a small sign of resistance and of solidarity with the world’s still-persecuted LGBTQ community. It’s humiliating England can’t even manage that.