Jan Vertonghen perhaps put it best. The former Tottenham Hotspur defender, who now plays for Anderlecht and is a key defender for the Belgium national team, was asked about the ongoing and developing conflict between several European nations and FIFA over the wearing of the rainbow OneLove armbands during the World Cup in Qatar . Vertonghen responded cautiously, but it wasn’t hard to see what he really thinks about the whole issue – he feels athletes are being “controlled” and he’s not happy about it.
“If you make a statement by wearing the armband, that would mean punishing yourself. I don’t feel well – and that says enough. We’re being put on the spot and I’m scared that if I say anything about it I might not be able to play and that’s a situation that I’ve never experienced in football and hopefully never have to experience again because it’s not good.
“We’re being checked. I don’t like making political statements. We’re here to play football and if we can’t even do that because we’re making a statement and just saying normal things like ‘no to discrimination’ or ‘no to racism’ and you can’t say that then then hey, then what?”
“I shouldn’t say anything because I want to be there for kick-off at 10am (on Wednesday) so I’ll leave it at that and that says enough.”
Vertonghen is right – there shouldn’t be a problem at all wearing something on your gear that encourages inclusivity. These are near-universal concepts supposedly embraced by FIFA itself, “normal things” as he puts it, that shouldn’t even be considered controversial, and players shouldn’t be stuck between massive forces that are almost entirely above them .
But they are. What started as a fairly small protest by several European nations agreeing to wear a rainbow “OneLove” bracelet with a rather generic and innocuous statement about “inclusiveness” has grown into something that could have a big impact. The nine European nations that joined the OneLove campaign last year, including Belgium, England, Denmark, France, Wales and Germany, had asked FIFA weeks ago for permission to wear the armbands and received no response. Most (excluding France in particular) had signaled they were willing to defy FIFA’s ban on ‘non-standard’ kit and pay a fine.
That was until after the tournament kicked off. 24 hours before England were due to play their opening game against Iran, FIFA hit hard. difficult, against teams planning to wear the OneLove armbands and threatened national team captains violating FIFA rules with at least one preventive yellow card. There was unconfirmed evidence that FIFA’s sanctions could have been even harsher, including suspensions, if pushed ahead. All OneNation countries eventually gave way; England and Tottenham captain Harry Kane basically hinted that he had no say in the matter and was told not to wear it.
Then FIFA went even further and rejected Belgium’s away kits, which have a label reading ‘LOVE’ on the inside of their collars. World football’s governing body claimed that the kits were rejected due to the kits’ commercial connections to the Tomorrowland music festival, but that excuse sounds pretty hollow, especially when Belgium’s kits were publicly launched weeks ago. It’s quite revealing when a global soccer tournament bans even the advert for “love.”
All of this, of course, is taking place against the backdrop of a World Cup that has been achieved thanks in large part to bribery and corruption to a Middle Eastern nation that has a history of human rights abuses and which criminalizes homosexuality and non-heteronormative gender identities. There have been numerous reports of both fans and team staff being harassed for carrying rainbow flags or rainbow colored clothing. Despite their promises to the contrary, Qatari officials are at least continuing to try to enforce their ban against LBGTQ+ people or anything supporting queer-friendly causes. It’s not hard to extrapolate FIFA’s increasingly draconian efforts to crack down on anything even indirectly linked to LGBTQ+ causes, with the intense pressure of the Qatar tournament and national officials now calling their weight throw because they know the tournament will happen regardless of what happens within their confines.
The armbands were a small, symbolic protest that in many ways was hardly worth the fuss. But the whole situation is almost out of control now. The UEFA nations in particular are ANGRY. The German and Danish FAs have already said they will not support FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s leadership in his re-election campaign next year. The German FA is considering legal action against FIFA over these and other issues, and the German national team have staged an alternative protest in which they covered their mouths together for the team photo ahead of their game against Japan to symbolize how they feel about the OneLove armband were silenced issue.
Denmark is considering an even bigger move, signaling in a breaking news story this morning, as reported in the Athletic (£), that it is “open to talks” with member countries about a full exit from FIFA, according to DBU chairman Jesper Moller.
“It is not a decision that has been made now. We have known about this for a long time. We’ve been discussing this in the Nordic region since August. I’ve reconsidered. I can imagine that there could be challenges if Denmark goes alone. But let’s see if we can’t have a dialogue about things.
“I have to think about the question of how to restore confidence in FIFA. We have to evaluate what happened and then we have to develop a strategy – also with our Nordic colleagues.”
Sentiment is clearly high at the moment and it remains to be seen if any of the above threats will be implemented at the end of the tournament. But there seems to be a growing sense that FIFA’s current trajectory is unsustainable and a major course correction must take place to prevent division within its member countries. UEFA, or even some European nations, feels outlandish about leaving FIFA, but a lot less than, say, a year ago. And if Denmark, which has hinted it has support from other Nordic nations, can rally additional support, it’s not out of the question that at least some much-needed reform of FIFA is on the horizon. Or who knows, maybe even the creation of a new global governing body for all of sport.
Not bad for a simple rainbow bracelet, right?