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FIFA’s World Cup armband issue is threatening to turn into a full-scale revolt

European federations are furious, players are speaking out, and some countries are discussing leaving FIFA altogether.

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Belgium Press Conference - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Jan Vertonghen maybe said it best. The former Tottenham Hotspur defender, now playing for Anderlecht and a key defender for Belgium’s national team, was asked about the ongoing and developing conflict between several European nations and FIFA over wearing the rainbow OneLove armbands during the World Cup in Qatar. Vertonghen was careful in how he responded, but it wasn’t hard to see how he really feels about the whole issue — he feels like 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 comfortable – and that is telling enough. We are put on the spot, and I am afraid that if I say something about this, I might not be able to play and that is a situation I have never, ever experienced in football, and I hope I will never, ever have to experience again because it is not good.

“We are being controlled. I don’t like making political statements. We are here to play football, and if we can’t even do that because we are making a statement and just saying normal things, like ‘no to discrimination’ or ‘no to racism’, and you cannot say that, then hey, then what?”

“I shouldn’t be saying anything about it because (on Wednesday) I want to appear for the kick-off at 10 o’clock, so I will leave it at that and that says enough.”

Vertonghen’s right — it shouldn’t be an issue at all to wear something on your kit that promotes inclusivity. These are near-universal concepts that are ostensibly embraced by FIFA itself, “normal things” as he puts it that shouldn’t even be considered controversial, and players should not be stuck in the middle between massive forces that are almost entirely above them.

But they are. What started off as a rather tiny protest by several European nations who agreed to wear a rainbow “OneLove” armband with a rather generic and anodyne statement of “inclusivity” has spiraled into something that could have major implications. The nine European nations who joined the OneLove campaign last year, which includes Belgium, England, Denmark, France, Wales, and Germany, had asked FIFA for permission to wear the armbands weeks ago and never got a response. Most (notably excluding France) had signaled that they were prepared to defy FIFA’s ban against “non-standard” equipment and pay a fine.

That was until after the tournament kicked off. With 24 hours before England were to play their opening match against Iran, FIFA cracked down, hard, against teams planning to wear the OneLove armbands, threatening national team captains that defied FIFA’s rules with, at minimum, a preemptive yellow card. There were unconfirmed suggestions that FIFA’s sanctions could’ve been even harsher including suspensions if they were pushed. All of the OneNation countries eventually backed down; England and Tottenham captain Harry Kane basically hinted he had no say in the matter and was told to not wear it.

Then FIFA went even further, rejecting Belgium’s away kits that has tag on the inside of their collars that reads “LOVE.” The world football body claimed that the jerseys were rejected due to the kits’ commercial ties to the Tomorrowland music festival, but that excuse rings pretty hollow, especially when Belgium’s kits were released publicly weeks ago. It’s pretty telling when even promoting “love” becomes prohibited at a global football tournament.

All of this is of course played out against the background of a World Cup granted in large part thanks to bribery and corruption to a Middle Eastern nation with a history of human rights abuses and which criminalizes homosexuality and non-heteronormative gender identity. There have been numerous reports of both fans and team staff being harassed for carrying rainbow flags or wearing items of clothing with a rainbow color scheme. Qatari officials, despite their promises to the contrary, continue to at least attempt to enforce their ban against LBGTQ+ people or anything that supports queer-friendly causes. It’s not hard to extrapolate FIFA’s increasingly draconian efforts to clamp down on anything even indirectly associated with LGBTQ+ causes with intense pressure from Qatari tournament and national officials who are now throwing their weight around knowing that the tournament will proceed regardless of what takes place within their borders.

The armbands were a small, symbolic protest, hardly worth making a fuss over in many ways. But the entire situation has now spiraled almost out of control. UEFA nations in particular are FURIOUS. The German and Danish federations have already said that they will not support the leadership of FIFA president Gianni Infantino in his re-election campaign next year. The German federation is considering legal action against FIFA over this and other issues, and the German national team staged an alternate protest, collectively covering their mouths for the team photo before their match against Japan today to symbolize how they have been silenced over the OneLove armband issue.

Denmark is considering an even bigger move, signaling in breaking news this morning as reported in the Athletic (£) that they are “open to discussions” with member nations about leaving FIFA altogether, according to DBU chairman Jesper Moller.

“It is not a decision that has been made now. We have been clear about this for a long time. We have been discussing it in the Nordic region since August. I’ve thought it again. I imagine that there may be challenges if Denmark leaves on its own. But let us see if we cannot have a dialogue on things.

“I have to think about the question of how to restore confidence in FIFA. We must evaluate what has happened, and then we must create a strategy – also with our Nordic colleagues.”

Tempers are clearly high right now, and it remains to be seen whether any of the above threats are followed through on when the tournament ends. But there does appear to be a growing sentiment that FIFA’s current path is untenable, and a major course correction needs to take place to prevent a schism within its member nations. UEFA, or even some European nations, leaving FIFA feels outlandish, but a lot less so than it did, say, a year ago. And if Denmark, which hinted that it has support from fellow Nordic-region nations, can gather additional support, it’s not out of the question that at minimum some much needed reform to FIFA could be on the horizon. Or who knows, maybe even the creation of a new global governing body for the entire sport.

Not bad for a simple rainbow armband, huh?