If there’s been a theme to the 2022 World Cup so far, it’s the fear the host nation seems to inspire in everyone involved in the event.
Gianni Infantino might as well have had a laser sight on his forehead when he spent over an hour of his life on Saturday debasing himself in defense of Qatar’s human rights record. It was a fitting display from the head of an organization that has rolled over and given Qatar whatever it wants every step of the way towards this tournament. Qatar got the winter tournament it wanted, the beer-less tournament it wanted, and as of this morning it is getting the anti-gay tournament it wanted.
Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and several teams in the tournament had made plans to deal with this queasy reality with a small symbolic gesture: team captains were going to wear rainbow armbands that said “One Love” on them. Gestures don’t get much more feeble than that, and yet Qatar couldn’t resist putting its foot down one more time. According to multiple reports, the teams that had planned to have their captains wear the armband have now reversed course. In the first match of the day, England captain Harry Kane did not wear the armband.
Technically, it’s FIFA that curtailed the the wearing of the armbands by warning the countries’ various FAs that any player wearing an armband that is not approved by FIFA could face sanctions, including in-game yellow cards. Germany’s FA president called FIFA’s warnings “unprecedented” and a “show of power.” But it’s obvious that FIFA is just doing the same thing it’s been doing ever since it put this World Cup on the calendar 12 years ago: taking its marching orders straight from Qatar.
All of this puts the players in a tough position. The captains of these teams could go ahead and wear the armband anyway, accept however many yellow cards that leads to, and deal with the on-field consequences. A more productive response would require some escalation: If every player on a particular team decided to wear the armband, rather than just the captain, would the referee really start the game by handing out 11 yellow cards? That would very turn this entire tournament on its head, and either force FIFA to double down or find some guts.
Hovering over every set of decisions available to the players, however, is Qatar itself. Nothing about how this World Cup has unfolded has indicated that the host country is at all willing to conform to attitudes or principles that are not their own, so who can guess what they would do in response to a big public spectacle calling attention to their anti-gay policies. The players on these teams must now decide if that’s a question they really want to find out the answer to, or if they just want to play some soccer.