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No One Love armband: Is it time for England and Wales to walk out of this World Cup?

It would take immense courage, immense sacrifice. But would it take more courage, more sacrifice than that shown by England’s opposing captain in their opening fixture, the Iranian Ehsan Hajsafi?

Tom Peck
Monday 21 November 2022 19:32 GMT
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Harry Kane wearing rainbow armband in Qatar is part of England squad principles, says Eric Dier

If not now, when? If now is not the time to destroy Fifa by walking out of its absurd World Cup, then there will certainly never be a time. The moment has come and gone again.

The captains of England and Wales will not now wear their One Love armband, a small but significant gesture in the face of being compelled to play a football tournament in a country where, among so many other outrages, homosexuality is illegal.

And not just England and Wales either – Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands have also abandoned their plans, having been told, with hours to spare, that wearing the armband would result in an instant yellow card.

A fine they were content to receive, but an actual sporting sanction that would carry big implications on the pitch for the rest of the tournament is too heavy a sacrifice to make. (A player who receives two yellow cards in any of the first five matches is automatically suspended.)

Fifa has already played its sponsors. Budweiser has given Fifa around a billion dollars in the last 25 years. They were given two days’ notice that they couldn’t sell beer inside the World Cup stadiums. Germany has won the World Cup four times, England once. The Netherlands have played in three finals. All must yield to their blazerati’s demands.

They get away with it because no one can possibly walk away. One can scarcely imagine the reaction if a dressing room of leading international footballers were told they were quitting the World Cup. One can scarcely imagine the public’s reaction, too.

But again, if not now, when? This is a tournament like no other. There is close to zero excitement. There are no flags on cars, no overblown TV ads. Precious few fans have travelled to the tournament in comparison with others. The opening game was an embarrassment. The stadium half-empty with half an hour to go, the host nation having all but packed up and gone home itself.

If only the One Love armband-wearers decided to walk off, it would be enough to fatally undermine the tournament. It would be impossibly tough on the players. But this particular group of England players seem to be more predisposed to caring about such trifling matters as human rights than other groups that have gone before.

It would take immense courage, immense sacrifice. But would it take more courage, more sacrifice than that shown by England’s opposing captain in their opening fixture, the Iranian Ehsan Hajsafi? In the first-ever World Cup in the Middle East, hosted by Iran’s key ally, he has publicly criticised his government.

“Before anything else, I would like to express my condolences to all of the bereaved families in Iran,” he said at the weekend. “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.”

It would also not necessarily be an act of sacrifice. Destroying Fifa would be entirely in the game’s best interests. The next World Cup in 2026 will have, entirely for commercial reasons, 48 teams, competing in three-team groups. It will be significantly worse as a result.

It is possible to see things from Fifa’s point of view. It has been 12 years since Qatar was awarded the World Cup. It is not a statement of fact that Qatar bought the World Cup in 2010. There are only unsubstantiated allegations, supported by a few videos of Fifa executives receiving bribes. Almost all of them have faced corruption allegations of some kind.

There has since been substantial reform to the World Cup bidding process. Even Sepp Blatter realised, instantly, that Qatar had been a mistake. But such reforms still left them lumbered with the consequences of alleged corruption for 12 long years.

Gianni Infantino’s truly absurd speech at the weekend extends their ignominy. It confirms that the aberration was not an aberration, it is the way they truly are. “I feel Arab, I feel African. I feel gay. I feel disabled.” OK mate, but mainly you look like a complete buffoon.

He sat there and told the countries of Europe that their colonial guilt means they should sit down and shut up about indentured labour, about the persecution of gay people. A smarter man might have managed some more sophisticated sophistry. There are ways to equivocate without looking quite this stupid.

It is possible, too, to sympathise with preventing national teams from making their own acts of protest. Fifa has, before now, sought to prevent England from wearing the poppy, and it is possible to understand why. It is an organisation with more than 200 member associations, many of whom are at war with each other. If the poppy is permitted, what might the Baltic nations wish to wear on their shirts?

Fifa repeatedly claims that sport must be above politics, has provided its own pre-approved political armbands for its member nations to wear. It has its own officially sanctioned sanctimony.

So Harry Kane, Gareth Bale, Manuel Neuer, Virgil Van Dijk and their respective administrators have to decide what they want to do. Do they want to keep their heads down and just get on with the game, knowing that to do so means they have no choice but to be PR agents (and unpaid ones at that) for an entirely malignant organisation?

Naturally, it’s not as easy as all that. European nations are not likely to walk out en masse. France, for example, is not a conscientious objector to the Qatar World Cup. It lobbied for it. In 2015, days before Fifa’s disgraced ex-president Sepp Blatter was finally brought down, both France and Spain backed him in the presidential election.

The idea that Germany was entirely holier-than-thou in its successful bid for the 2006 World Cup is fanciful. When England lost out to Russia for the right to host the 2018 tournament, the FA immediately cancelled a planned friendly with Thailand, certain proof that the match had never been anything more than a lobbying exercise.

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One can sympathise, perhaps, with the notion that there is no other way of playing than to participate in Fifa’s game. But it is baffling that the powerful countries, the powerful teams, the powerful players, acquiesce in such a fashion to an organisation they don’t pretend not to loathe.

Sport really does have the power to change things, the power to transcend politics. The political convulsions on the island of Ireland have been all but ignored by its rugby union team for 150 years. Nelson Mandela said many times that nothing helped his cause more than the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa.

But Fifa and Gianni Infantino co-opt the courage of others for their own malign intentions. Sport does not transcend politics when the Fifa president, to take but one of so many egregious examples, accepts the Russian Medal of Friendship from Vladimir Putin.

The longer Fifa is allowed to carry on as normal, the more eroded the moral high ground becomes. We happen to know very well, in this country, at the present time, what happens to those who just go along with a very obvious wrong ’un. All are damaged in the end. All are forced to take their share of the shame.

Fifa (like Boris Johnson, in case that is anything less than entirely obvious) is not going to change. There will never be a better time to change it than now. That the One Love armband army chose not to press home its once-in-a-lifetime advantage, it will most certainly live to regret.

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