As It Happens·Q&A

FIFA should be 'ashamed' for banning rainbow armbands: LGBTQ group

Rob Sanderson says FIFA should be "ashamed of themselves" for "bullying" the European football clubs whose captains were planning to wear rainbow armbands at the World Cup. He spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

FIFA threatens yellow cards for players who wear multi-coloured 'One Love' bands at World Cup

A soccer player, pictured from behind, with only his back visible. He's wearing a red jersey with the number 9 and the word "Kane." On his upper arm is a band with a rainbow heart and the number 1.
England's Harry Kane is seen wearing a rainbow-coloured 'One Love' armband during an UEFA Nations League football match in London's Wembley Stadium on Sept. 26, 2022. The captains of seven European nations will not wear the armbands in World Cup games after threats from FIFA to show yellow cards to the players. (Carl Recine/Action Images/Reuters)

Rob Sanderson says FIFA should be "ashamed of themselves" for "bullying" the European football clubs whose captains were planning to wear rainbow armbands at the World Cup.

Several team captains had planned to sport armbands on the field in support of the "One Love" campaign, which promotes inclusion and diversity in soccer and society. The move was seen as a rebuke against World Cup host country Qatar's anti-gay laws.

But on Monday, just hours before the first players wearing the armbands were set to take the field, FIFA warned they would be immediately shown yellow cards if they did. 

FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, bans the display of political symbols during games, and the teams may have been expecting fines for their show of solidarity. But the threat of an on-field punishment — which could affect whether a team wins or loses — may have changed their calculus. 

Sanderson is a member of Pride In Football, a network of LGBT+ fan groups in the U.K., and 3 Lions Pride, an LGBT+ fan group for England. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

England won today, but the players weren't wearing those "One Love" armbands. Captain Harry Kane was wearing the FIFA-approved "No Discrimination" band instead. But what was it like to see that?

It's been a bit of a bittersweet day for us really, because obviously, you know, it was really, really an emphatic win for England. And given the recent performances, it was quite refreshing to see them actually be quite dominant on the field for a change.

But it's sort of alongside the disappointment, really, that they felt that they weren't able to take a stand. And also just the absolute disgust at FIFA for bullying the European football associations into backing down.

A soccer player looks over his shoulder. He's wearing a black armbands that reads: "NO discrimination."
Kane gestures wearing a black armband with a sign 'No discrimination' during a World Cup group B soccer match between England and Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on Monday. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

This has been going on for some months, just trying to get to this point, to get a decision on the armbands. The national associations wrote to FIFA back in September. They did not receive a response until today. So what do you make of that timing?

As disappointed as we are, we're more angry at FIFA because it's actually censorship. And it's taking away that basic, fundamental human right of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, punishable by up to three years in jail. Given that, who do you blame here?

This is FIFA's fault. FIFA were the ones who awarded the World Cup to Qatar in the first place, knowing the stance that they take on human rights. 

Because it's not just about how LGBT fans are treated. It's also how the migrant workers who built the infrastructure that's been needed for the World Cup have been treated. And also how women are treated in Qatar. It's not just about our community. It's about basic freedoms.

What would it have meant for you to see them wearing the "One Love" armbands? I ask because I wonder, you know, how do you think an armband can combat homophobia in a country or on a pitch?

One of the things that we've seen, first-hand, is that once you get engagement from the players, the attitude of the media and of the fans around you changes completely. Once it's not just you and your group standing up for what's right, and it's the players here on the pitch as well, saying, "Actually, yeah, we support them and we stand with them," it opens all sorts of doors. It enables conversations to happen at a much faster rate. And it enables real change to happen.

So to see the opportunity for that show of solidarity on the biggest stage that football has taken away from us is, it's horrible.

You called it earlier a betrayal.

Yeah, very much so. 

FIFA have said — in what little has been said in the build-up to the World Cup — that everyone will be welcome, and that football is for all. Well, how is it for all if we're not even allowed to have a show of solidarity?

A black and white photo of a man in a soccer stadium, leaning against the railing, sporting a Nike soccer T-shirt.
Rob Sanderson is a member of Pride In Football, a network of LGBT+ fan groups in the U.K., and 3 Lions Pride, an LGBT+ fan group for England. (Submitted by Rob Sanderson)

Why do you think FIFA made this decision so last-minute?

It's difficult to say. With what's been happening with FIFA this week and some of the statements that have been made, it's been absurd and completely unpredictable. There is a bit of a feeling that the regime in Qatar have leaned on FIFA and pressured them.

Ultimately, by denying the platform and yet then creating more of a controversy, it diminishes what little ground there is to be gained. And it trivializes the issue. And it denies us the ability simply to exist within the game of football.

There have been controversies at the World Cup before, and many, as you've mentioned, with this World Cup in particular. What keeps you coming back to the sport and this tournament?

Football is very much a part of life in the U.K. It's bred into all of us. It's the game everyone plays at some point. And it's one of the largest sports in the world as well. It's impossible to escape that.

And if you've ever been to a game and been in the stadium and experienced the rush of the adrenaline when you're cheering your team on, when it's a close fight at the end of the game...

It's pretty great. 

There's nothing like it.

What do you hope FIFA takes away from this particular experience?

I really, really hope that FIFA walk away from this World Cup ashamed of themselves. There's nothing at all to be happy about or pleased about. This hasn't been a success at all. 

With files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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