While there are few things more exciting than watching attractive men play sports whose rules you only vaguely grasp, this year’s FIFA World Cup, which kicked off over the weekend in Qatar, continues to bump itself down on the list of entertaining winter pastimes. As of today, seven European countries—England, Wales, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland—have announced that their teams will not be wearing the OneLove armbands that condemn discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, sparking outrage amongst fans and activist groups alike.
“FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play,” the English Football Association said in a statement published earlier today. “Our players and coaches are disappointed—they are strong supporters of inclusion and will show support in other ways.”
The decision came after FIFA allegedly threatened players and coaches with disciplinary actions—including being booked (a yellow card) or even being forced to leave the pitch (a red card)—should they wear the armbands, according to the Guardian. The gesture, which was popularized during the 2020 Euro Cup, is far less risky than, say, taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial violence. And yet, these soccer bros still couldn’t seem to deliver.
Many have been quick to criticize the teams themselves, while others have directed their anger at FIFA. Even before the World Cup began, FIFA was already under heat for choosing to host the tournament in Qatar, a country that is openly homophobic and has a track record of human rights violations. Given just how endangered members of the LGBTQ+ community are in Qatar, it’s disappointing—but maybe not surprising—that these teams would choose their love for the game (and the money that comes along with it) over standing up for injustices that impact countless individuals globally.
“LGBTQ+ people are criminalised in Qatar just for being themselves. No country which abuses the human rights of its people in this way should have been awarded with the honour of hosting a major sporting tournament in the first place,” the UK-based LGBTQ+ rights organization Stonewall said on Twitter.
“By threatening sporting sanctions & stopping players from wearing #OneLove armbands, FIFA [is] brushing criticism of human rights abuses under the carpet,” the organization added.
Pride in Football, a UK-based LGBTQ fan group, was also quick to point out the team’s performative allyship on Twitter:
Countries, teams and players are happy to defend LGBTQ+ people until they themselves are at risk. LGBTQ+ Qataris face a bigger punishment than just a yellow card. The gestures and the activism ended quite easily at the thought of reprimand. This World Cup is not for all, it has never been for all, and until it ends will not be for all.
The English Football Association explained in their statement that the national federations were “prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations” and even “wrote to FIFA in September informing them of our wish to wear the One Love armband to actively support inclusion in football, and had no response.”
But it seems like not hearing back was enough to give up on the issue completely, even though England’s captain Harry Kane maintained earlier this month that he would wear the OneLove armband no matter the cost. When it came to game time, Kane seemed to have ditched the OneLove band, trading it in for a more vague, less political “No Discrimination” armband.
In the wake of continued violence against LBGTQ+ communities, including the recent Colorado Springs nightclub shooting that killed at least five queer individuals, many argue that the visible support of these high-profile athletes—even if they are just small gestures—is more important than ever. Rio Ferdinand, who used to play for the English national team, expressed his disappointment in the team’s decisions, accusing them of “folding like a pack of cards” after hitting “one bump in the road.”
Off the field, those who have been brave enough to protest against Qatar’s homophobic ideologies have seen repercussions. According to TMZ, soccer reporter Grant Wahl was detained for nearly half an hour because he was wearing a rainbow shirt. Wahl was asked to change his “political” shirt and had his phone taken away before ultimately being let into a stadium by a security commander.
In spite of it all, England’s opposing team, Iran, seemed to have no problem standing their political ground during their match. Its players remained silent and solemn while their national anthem played on Sunday, in protest of the ongoing state violence enacted against those protesting the country’s theocratic regime.
Maybe the European teams would like to take a note or two?