How captain’s armbands with anti-discrimination messages turned into latest World Cup controversy


No major tournament in the history of football has proven as controversial as the 2022 World Cup, with a farcical row over captain’s armbands dominating the opening two days in Qatar.

For several weeks, a number of European nations have been promising to support the ‘OneLove’ campaign in Qatar, which aims to “speak out against all forms of discrimination”.

But, on the eve of the tournament, FIFA instead launched its own captain’s armband campaign, in partnership with three United Nations agencies.

Reports over the weekend, in The Athletic and beyond, revealed that a number of national associations were growing increasingly nervous they could be punished by FIFA for allowing the rainbow ‘OneLove’ bands to be worn and now, with captains facing the threat of automatic bookings, the European nations have backed down from wearing the armband.

But was FIFA really likely to punish players for supporting an anti-discrimination campaign? Has FIFA changed its rules? And how did we get here in the first place?

We attempt to explain the latest controversy to hit Qatar 2022 below.

What is the ‘OneLove’ campaign?

It is an anti-discrimination campaign initially started by the Dutch Football Association before Euro 2020, which is supported by the captains of the national teams of Belgium, Denmark, Germany, England, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Wales, Sweden and Switzerland.

The ‘OneLove’ campaign says its “international caption” is ‘Football has the power to unite people’, paraphrasing a well known quote from Nelson Mandela.

The creators of the campaign say they “want to express their support for (the) unification of all people” and “speak out against all forms of discrimination”.

How were captains going to show their support for the campaign?

By wearing a special armband.

The white armband featured a multi-coloured love heart, along with the words: “One Love”. The armband makes no specific reference of homophobia nor any other form of discrimination.

But numerous national team captains previously spoke publicly about wanting to wear the armbands in Qatar, where same-sex relationships are criminalised.

OK. So why is there a problem?

Because, on the eve of the tournament, FIFA announced its own social justice armbands, in partnership with three United Nations agencies.

The armbands will feature a different social campaign throughout each round of the tournament, with slogans including ‘Football unites the world’ and ‘Share the meal’.

Other themes include #SaveThePlanet, #ProtectChildren, #EducationForAll and #BeActive.

The more good causes the better, right? Right?!


On Sunday, the German tabloid BILD reported that the German Football Association was concerned its captain, Manuel Neuer, could be shown a yellow card for wearing the ‘OneLove’ armband in the opening World Cup match against Japan, in light of FIFA’s announcement.

Neuer had said that he would wear the armband and was “not afraid of the consequences”.

Later, The Athletic reported that the Football Association was waiting to see how they could be punished for allowing Harry Kane to wear the armband before deciding on whether or not to continue publicly supporting the ‘OneLove’ campaign.

And what punishment could that be?

FIFA could fine national associations should their captains wear the ‘OneLove’ armband instead of their designs while the governing body can also instruct match officials to show a yellow card to captains who wear the ‘OneLove’ armband.

This has seemingly deterred the involved nations from going through with wearing the armband. The Athletic previously reported that England were prepared to accept a fine for it, as they wrote in their statement, but on-field sanctions represent a different issue entirely.

Virgil van Dijk, the Netherlands captain, said over the weekend that he planned to support ‘OneLove’ against Senegal on Monday but would need to “have a conversation” following the match should he be cautioned.

When did we find out?

Monday was the crunch day because England, the Netherlands and Wales all play their opening match of the World Cup, having expressed their commitment to the ‘OneLove’ campaign.

A few hours before the Three Lions were due to kick off their campaign against Iran, an FA statement revealed that they had asked Harry Kane not to wear the armband because of the risk of a sporting sanction, such as a yellow card.

The rest of the statement read: “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.”

Is any of this new?

Nope. The threat of an automatic booking has always been in the rulebook and FIFA has not changed its rules since announcing its campaign.

National associations have been in contact with FIFA for weeks over the armbands, but the governing body has simply pointed to their regulations, which stipulate that anything worn on the field of play must have prior approval.

So national teams know that, in wearing the ‘OneLove’ armbands, they are breaking FIFA’s rules. The exact punishments are not crystal clear but those nations are not willing to wait and find out.

Why can’t Gareth Southgate or other managers wear it?

The issue is that technically, managers are also on the field of play.

They would therefore be subject to a yellow card if they wore the armband on the touchline.


Human rights at the Qatar World Cup – a guide to everything you need to know

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