How FIFA Silenced a World Cup Armband Campaign

DOHA, Qatar — The opening match of the World Cup was only hours away when the leaders of a group of European soccer federations arrived for a meeting at the luxury Fairmont Hotel. The five-star property, converted into the tournament headquarters for FIFA leadership, was an unlikely setting for a fight. But with the matches about to begin, it would have to do.

By then the federations and representatives of FIFA had been meeting on and off for months about a plan by the group of nine national teams to wear multicolored armbands with the message “One Love” during their matches at the tournament in Qatar. FIFA had been displeased by the idea, but the teams — which included the tournament contenders France, Germany, England, the Netherlands and Belgium — felt a tacit peace had been agreed to: The teams would wear the armbands, and FIFA would look the other way, then quietly fine them later for breaking its uniform rules.

In a conference room at the Fairmont on Nov. 20, though, everything changed. With the room’s large windows and their sweeping views of the Persian Gulf to her back, Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s second-ranking executive, told the federations that their armbands would not only be against the tournament’s uniform regulations but also considered a provocation toward Qatar, the tournament host, and other Islamic nations and African countries. They would not be allowed, Samoura said. The Europeans were stunned.

The 24 hours that followed, a flurry of meetings and threats and raised voices and brinkmanship, are just a memory this weekend, as Argentina and France prepare to play in the World Cup final on Sunday. FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the discussions; this article is based on interviews with multiple participants in the talks, many of whom asked for anonymity because they were not allowed to relate private discussions to the news media.

The One Love campaign, begun in the Netherlands three years ago as an effort to promote inclusivity, morphed into one of the biggest controversies of the early days of the World Cup. A month after its sudden end, it remains instructive as an unusually forceful display of the power FIFA wields over its member federations; the leverage it can bring to bear to force their compliance in disagreements; and the way a social justice campaign set to take place on the sport’s biggest stage could be silenced in a single 24-hour period.

When seven of the European teams arrived in Qatar in late November, their soccer federations insisted that the plan for their captains to wear the One Love armbands remained intact even though FIFA, advised about the plan months earlier, had yet to respond to the idea, despite letters mailed and talks held at the soccer body’s Zurich headquarters.

The European nations competing in the World Cup — England, France, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Wales and Switzerland — and two nations that had not qualified, Norway and Sweden, had found common cause months earlier. Buffeted by mounting criticism of the Qatar World Cup at home, they had planned to highlight their inclusivity message during matches at the tournament. The campaign came after the host country had faced a decade of scrutiny over its human rights record, its treatment of migrant laborers and its criminalization of homosexuality.

The group of teams, eager to show solidarity with minority groups and highlight their concerns, but also wary of offending the sensitivities of their hosts, had decided months earlier that they would wear an armband whose design was similar to, but crucially separate from, the more well-known Pride flag.

In September, they went public with the plan, with each soccer federation releasing an announcement simultaneously. In statements, captains like Harry Kane of England, Virgil van Dijk of the Netherlands and the goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Germany — some of the game’s biggest stars — spoke about their eagerness to share the message.

Behind the scenes, as the tournament grew closer, the federations sought clarity from FIFA about what it might do once the captains entered the field with an armband that had not been sanctioned by FIFA.

At a meeting on Oct. 12 at FIFA’s headquarters in Switzerland, representatives of the teams met with high-ranking FIFA officials, including the governing body’s deputy secretary general, Alasdair Bell, and ​ FIFA’s human rights department, Andreas Graf. The officials talked about labor reforms in Qatar, about the possibility of compensation scheme for migrant workers and about the safety concerns of gay fans attending the World Cup. The final item on the agenda was the One Love armband.

“We expressed quite strongly that we would wear the armband, that for us there was no discussion about it,” Gijs de Jong, the secretary general of the Netherlands soccer federation, told The New York Times. The group told the FIFA officials that their federations were willing to accept fines for breaching World Cup uniform regulations, which they understood to be the maximum punishment FIFA could impose for such a violation.

The FIFA officials replied that they would discuss the armband plan and return with a response. They did not. News media inquiries went unanswered, too.

De Jong said he took FIFA’s silence as a sign that while soccer’s governing body was clearly not pleased about the plan, it might look the other way long enough for the World Cup to play out.

“I thought in this case that they would not forbid it but also not give permission, just sort of let it go,” de Jong said. “I thought that would happen, and maybe we would get a fine.”

That all changed when the teams arrived in Doha in the days before the tournament.

Some of the teams held events with migrant workers at their training bases, and in news conferences their captains were asked about the plan to wear the armbands. A few recommitted to the idea. But the France captain, Hugo Lloris, who had worn the One Love armband during games in Europe, said he would not join the campaign at the World Cup, citing respect for Qatar, a conservative Muslim nation and the first Arab host of the World Cup.

Despite Lloris’s sentiments, nothing appeared to have changed for the other teams. They remained steadfast in their convictions at that point, even though they had been alarmed by a speech by FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, who bashed European attitudes toward Qatar on the eve of the opening game.

The European representatives had decided to let his words slide when they entered a meeting room at the Fairmont. Seated around a table so large that one executive present compared it to ones used by Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, they held further talks on the rights issues and the armband, which by that point had a competitor. Days earlier, FIFA had surprisingly announced an armband campaign of its own: Its versions bear slogans like “No Discrimination,” “Save the Planet” and “Education for All.”

The European delegation praised that campaign — which was co-sponsored by the United Nations — but reiterated that their captains would be wearing One Love armbands as planned. Once again, the federation representatives left with a feeling that there was an unspoken compromise in place.

“We will wear the armband, we will acknowledge your campaign and you will take it slow with disciplinary procedures,” de Jong said when asked to describe the mood after that meeting broke up. “Fine us after the World Cup.”

Within 24 hours, though, the mood and tone suddenly shifted. After a summit for FIFA’s 211 member federations led by Infantino, the European teams and representatives of Norway and Sweden, two countries that did not qualify for the World Cup but had been outspoken over the Qatar World Cup, were ushered once more to the conference room. There, Samoura, a former U.N. official from Senegal who had not been present at the earlier meeting, took a more forceful tone.

Stunning those present, she warned that the punishments they faced would be immediate and directly target the players involved. Voices were raised. According to a European official who attended the meeting, Samoura, during a coffee break, even suggested to a delegate from Belgium that, should its team continue to promote the One Love armband, it might embolden African teams to wear versions protesting past colonial abuses. FIFA, asked directly about the incident, said it would not comment on the specifics of the meeting.

As the meeting passed the two-hour mark, creeping closer to the time all those present needed to head to Al Bayt Stadium for the World Cup’s opening game, a question was eventually put to FIFA: What are you going to do if the teams go ahead? A FIFA official suggested the match commissioner could remove the armband off any captain who wore one. “We said, ‘Good luck with Virgil van Dijk,’” said de Jong, referring to the 6-foot-5 Dutch captain.

Still, by the time the meeting broke up, sporting punishments became, for the first time, a distinct possibility.

At the stadium that evening, while Qatar was losing the opening game to Ecuador, the members of the European group huddled, preparing for the worst. They quickly came to an agreement that if there was to be a punishment for their players — FIFA was by then threatening to hand out a yellow card to any captain in violation of the uniform rules — they would not put their top stars in a position where they had to make a choice.

But FIFA had still not provided any clarity, and by then the World Cup had begun. Three of the European teams would be playing the next day, and the rest in the days that followed. On Monday, the morning after the opening match, the first of those teams, England, received a high-profile delegation from FIFA, including the tournament director Colin Smith and FIFA’s head of communications, Bryan Swanson, at its hotel in Al Wakrah.

There, FIFA ratcheted up the pressure. According to de Jong, who said he was called immediately by Mark Bullingham, the English federation’s chief executive, FIFA made clear that the yellow card threat was merely a minimum sanction. “They implied it could be a one-game ban for a player,” de Jong said.

The federations agreed that the FIFA threat was “unprecedented” and would likely be overturned in a legal challenge. But they were out of time. “What will you do on the pitch?” de Jong said. “Send your lawyer out there?”

The campaign collapsed. The teams announced that they had asked their captains not to wear the armbands. The players complied, and the tournament moved on.

All of the teams eventually took the field without incident. When they did, many of their captains were wearing armbands emblazoned with FIFA-approved messaging.

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