The saga of the OneLove armbands that were going to be worn by a number of team captains has been annoying and frustrating from start to limp finish. In many ways, the clamp down by Fifa on the wearing of them is ironic, too, because everyone within the federations who put together this show of support has worked hard to build a new OneLove brand almost to detach from the rainbow, to dilute and depoliticise an issue that is unavoidably political.
The whole episode was disappointing because even the most watered-down attempt to show that football should be an inclusive and welcoming space was too much. For Fifa to threaten players and the federations for trying to promote a symbolic message of unity, togetherness, tolerance and inclusion goes against all the values and principles that it says it stands for and wants to promote as the global governing body of the game.
There have been plenty who have argued that players, fans and federations should “stick to football” and that “we should respect the culture” of the host nation, but this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues. If we accepted segregation as part of the culture of a place or time then we would still be living with anti-interracial marriage laws and who knows what else.
Arguing this is the liberal west trying to impose its values and principles on a country and a competition that don’t want it also hugely negates the lived experiences of any LGBTQ+ players competing in the tournament, as well as the LGBTQ+ fans in the stands. Perhaps most criminally, it also lets down representatives of the LGBTQ+ communities within Qatar, who need global support and the platform of the World Cup to have a voice about what’s going on for them and the freedoms they’re fighting for.
The accusation that it is racist to discuss these issues because it shows a lack of respect for Qatari or Islamic culture is wrong, but there has been a tinge of racism regarding discussions. In many forums the narrative becomes that this is the uncultured Middle East v the progressive west, but that undermines the issues and leads to whataboutery. We should not be coming across as holier than thou but acknowledging that problems can exist all over the world, in all societies, at the same time.
In Britain we have a lot of issues. I would argue that rising homelessness and people not being able to afford energy is also a human rights abuse, that people should not have to be suffering in the way they are because of the negligence of the government.
All of these things can exist at the same time. I can be critical of our government, our country and the way things are operating here as well as being critical of other countries. Human rights abuses and discrimination should not even be up for debate. It should be a given that you take an ethical and moral position on these issues, but at the first sign of a pushback from Fifa the federations folded.
There are huge pressures on players. Many don’t just support themselves financially but their extended families, too. And there is a real feeling of powerlessness. There is a feeling that whatever they do, nothing will change. That is why federations need to take a stand, as governing bodies but also in supporting their players’ voices.
If everyone gave up at the first hurdle in the fight for freedoms and equality, then where would be today? Look at John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman, who stood on the 200m podium at the 1968 Olympics and risked everything – Smith and Carlos raised their fists in support of the Black Power movement, with all three donning badges in support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
It’s a sacrifice, and sometimes it is a personal sacrifice, but the long‑term effect and the impact that acts of solidarity or protest can have are far reaching. We should be taking pride in the position we want to stand on and should be reflecting on how we want to be seen in the next 100 years.
The decision to set the armbands aside in the face of sporting sanctions is incredibly weak and stands in stark contrast to the actions of the players of Iran. They have risked being disowned by their own nation, their own government and put themselves, their families and their friends in potential danger by not singing the national anthem before the game against England in support of the protests back home. They understand, though, that the World Cup is a platform and an opportunity to bring global attention to a very important and critical issue within their own country. That shows courage and strength and it should empower others.
If a women’s team had been put in the position of the teams involved and been threatened with sporting sanctions, I feel like the response would have been different. Why? Because as women we’ve been used to having to sacrifice and make difficult choices just to be able to play football, even when we know there’s a consequence. Indeed, the two people to wear the armband despite Fifa’s condemnation have been women – the former England international Alex Scott and Germany’s interior minister, Nancy Faeser.
The Germany players covering their mouths in protest against the threat of sanctions and a number of federations and players speaking out strongly against the pressure to not wear the armband should be applauded, but it’s not enough. Every day, migrant workers, women and LGBTQ+ people put their lives on the line just by existing in Qatar. Not being able to stomach sporting sanctions in that context is incredibly weak.