Yellow cards and yellow bellies - England wasted their chance by backing down in armband debacle

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The Three Lions have been embroiled in a debate over captain’s armbands in the past couple of days.

In the end it was a case of yellow cards and yellow bellies; an entire rainbow reduced to a monochromatic drizzle by a disappointing climbdown. On a day in which England towered so courageously in a 6-2 hounding of Iran, their softened stance with regards to overt support for the LGBTQ community made for a disheartening footnote.

The Three Lions, like several other nations, headed into the Qatar World Cup promising to sport a captain’s armband displaying the OneLove motif as part of a campaign “to promote inclusion and send a message against discrimination of any kind”. FIFA, naturally, had other ideas. The governing body, ever the moral compass, takes a rigidly unforgiving view of political slogans being added to team kits and uniforms. It’s a sad state of affairs when allyship is deemed too incendiary a statement for public consumption, but then again, would we expect anything less from such an ethically bankrupt organisation? Perhaps Gianni Infantino just wasn’t feeling very gay on Monday.

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Consequently, FIFA threatened to caution any player who entered the field of play wearing an armband emblazoned with the rainbow heart. In response, England, and the other countries involved, decided against the gesture. A statement from the FA read: “FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play. As national federations, we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked the captains not to attempt to wear the armbands in FIFA World Cup games.

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“We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband. However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play. We are very frustrated by the FIFA decision which we believe is unprecedented – we 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.

“Our players and coaches are disappointed – they are strong supporters of inclusion and will show support in other ways.”

But here’s the thing, what is protest without disruption and disobedience? What is a yellow card in comparison to the undue detainment and punishment that LGBTQ people risk in Qatar on a daily basis, simply for the crime of existing? Imagine how powerful a visual it would have been, how loudly it would have echoed and reverberated around the globe, to see Harry Kane stubbornly defy authority and take his booking on the chin in the name of equality for all. Nobody should doubt the England squad’s belief in social justice, but backing down in this manner projects the message, inadvertently or otherwise, that football is a more pressing concern than the rights of the oppressed.

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Kane has since expressed his disappointment at not being permitted to sport the OneLove as originally planned. Speaking after Monday’s match, he said: “I said yesterday we wanted to wear it. That decision was taken out of my hands today. I turned up to the stadium with the armband that I wore and I was told I had to wear that [the official FIFA armband]. It’s out of our control as players.”

BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

As for FIFA, there are some instances in which political neutrality from a governing organisation is, if not commendable, at least understandable. This is not one of them. Their steadfast insistence on impartiality is ensuring that the Draconian remains permissible. Things have gotten so ridiculous that Belgium have been banned from wearing their away kit while the word ‘Love’ is still stitched into the collar. We’re literally at the stage where the fundamental concept of love is too political for the people running football. It brings to mind that gag from The Simpsons where Mr. Burns, glowing a luminescent green and hopped up on countless life preserving drugs, is mistaken for a doting alien by a baying mob, and Lenny and Carl threaten to break his legs. At least in that case the writers intended for it to be laughable.

At various points during the early stages of this World Cup, people - usually those with vested interests - have argued that visitors to Qatar should respect the way of life and the laws of the land. And that’s absolutely fair enough when we’re talking about alcohol consumption, for instance. But it’s not okay to shrug off blind discrimination as inevitable cultural difference. People are people, regardless of sexuality, race, or any other distinguishing factors. People deserve to be happy and accepted. This may sound like the kind of simplistic narrative you would spoon-feed a child, but it’s true, and it’s worth reiterating these basic facts because a lot of very powerful men in possession of a lot of ill-begotten money have lost sight of them.

And that brings us on to another point. Qatar criminalises homosexuality because Islam teaches that it is a sin. The Prophet Muhammad also stated: “Pay the worker his dues before his sweat has dried up”. Where was the government’s fervour to uphold the scripture in relation to their abhorrent treatment of migrant workers? It’s a singular example, granted, but it speaks to a meticulously-tailored hypocrisy. Far too often, religion is wielded as a tool and an excuse to oppress when it suits those with agendas and might to protect. But while religion, whether it be Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or any other creed, should be respected, it cannot be brandished as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card on matters of morality and accountability.

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At this World Cup, there is a bulging cast of nefarious characters casting their spindly shadows of influence, and relatively few ways in which nations can effectively speak out against them. By backing down on something as minor as a captain’s armband and a yellow card, England, and several of their peers, have wasted one chance to the detriment of the LGBTQ community. They might not get another.

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