Rainbow Armbands Are New Flash Point for FIFA and Qatar World Cup

LONDON — FIFA and World Cup organizers came under pressure on Wednesday from a group of European soccer federations who said they planned to have their captains wear armbands with a rainbow heart design as part of an anti-discrimination campaign during international matches and at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The group of European soccer federations, which includes the World Cup contenders England, Germany and France, joined forces on Wednesday in announcing their intention to have their captains wear the armbands, which feature a so-called One Love design that is similar in design — but not identical — to the well-known Pride flag that serves as a symbol for the gay rights movement.

The Dutch soccer federation, which has played a leading role in the campaign, said eight European teams that have qualified for Qatar would take part, and that two others would wear the armbands in coming national team matches in a European competition, the Nations League. The group of national federations includes the teams of Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Wales, Sweden and Switzerland.

The announcement is the latest front in a rift between soccer governing bodies and nations competing in Qatar who have faced sustained pressure from fans, human rights groups and others to take a stand against the Gulf country’s laws against homosexuality and the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers who helped the tiny emirate prepare for the Middle East’s first World Cup.

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The armbands have not yet been approved by soccer’s governing body, FIFA, which has strict rules on how teams can be dressed at the World Cup, and on the insertion of politics and social issues onto the field of play. The decision by the federations to apply public pressure highlights the fine line that competing teams — as well as FIFA and its sponsors — are trying to navigate in balancing the demands of their fans and human rights groups while not upsetting Qatar, a conservative Muslim nation and the tournament’s host.

“Wearing the armband together on behalf of our teams will send a clear message when the world is watching,” the England captain Harry Kane said in a statement.

The armbands’ design, while using rainbow colors, stops short of matching the more common Pride flag. Qatari officials have long said that all fans are welcome at the monthlong tournament in November and December, but security officials there also have warned supporters not to travel with the rainbow flag for their own safety, and it remains unclear how same-sex couples will be treated when it comes to policing and accommodations.

For FIFA, the armbands are merely the latest lightning rod for a tournament that has stirred controversy and disquiet since Qatar was first awarded hosting rights in December 2010. Earlier this week, the Polish captain Robert Lewandowski, the reigning FIFA player of the year, accepted an armband in the colors of Ukraine’s flag from the Ukrainian soccer great Andriy Shevchenko that he said he would carry with him to Qatar.

Poland was among the European nations that said they would not play against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February. FIFA eventually banned Russia from playing international soccer, a decision that led to its elimination from the World Cup qualification playoffs.

FIFA managed to fend off an appeal of the ban from Russia by arguing that it could not organize the World Cup if a large number of teams refused to play the country. The same strength-in-numbers rationale may have been behind the decision by the group of Europeans nations to have their captains wear the rainbow armbands.

“Football is there for everyone and our sport must stand up for the people across the world who face discrimination and exclusion,” said Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who captains his national team. “I am proud to be sending out this message with my colleagues from the other national teams. Every single voice counts.”

England’s soccer federation also announced that it would be lobbying to strengthen migrant-worker rights in Qatar, and expressed its support for compensation to be paid for any injuries and deaths during the construction phase of the World Cup. That desire stopped short of an effort from several human rights groups who are urging FIFA to create a $440 million compensation fund for workers.

Felix Jakens, an official with Amnesty International in Britain, said English soccer officials should specifically push for a “fund for abused workers and the families of those who’ve died to make the World Cup happen.”

Human rights groups have claimed that more than 6,000 workers have died in construction projects related to the World Cup. Qatari World Cup officials have put that number at three, limiting their responsibility to those who died specifically building stadiums for the event.

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