Swiss captain Granit Xhaka wearing the OneLove captain’s armband.Image ANP / EPA

    The statement did not last longer than three seconds when the England players knelt just before the kick-off of their World Cup match against Iran on Monday. “We think it’s an important and strong signal to the world for inclusiveness,” England coach Gareth Southgate said beforehand, “especially for young people.”

    The players of England’s opponent Iran had already finished their silent protest: they did not sing the national anthem. What both teams did is what world football association Fifa and the Qatari organization do not want, but they could not prohibit it. The English players also kneeled under the eyes of Fifa prior to qualifying matches for the World Cup. And no one could force the Iranians to sing their national anthem before their football match.

    ‘Very brave of the Iranian players’, says Daniela Heerdt of the TMC Asser Institute, a legal knowledge and research center in The Hague. She is in Qatar to conduct research into the handling of human rights during the World Cup.

    Heerdt saw people with binoculars and cameras watching Iranian supporters. ‘Especially women. They are not allowed to enter the stadium in Iran, but they are here. They made sure that they were not recognizable as supporters of Iran.’ According to Heerdt, the silent protest was not visible in Iran, because state television went black at the supreme moment. “It seems that the Iranian team has announced the protest to its own government.”

    Fifa also makes vain attempts to keep politics and sport separate, on the grounds that it does not want to go against the grain of any of the 211 member countries, each with an equally important vote. In the eyes of the union, at least one member is always the victim of a political statement, whatever FIFA means by that. Fifa boss Infantino called for a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine during the World Cup and called on all 32 participating countries by letter not to discuss politics during the World Cup.

    No Love in the collar

    Just before England – Iran, Fifa prevented the captains of seven European countries, including the Netherlands, from wearing the OneLove captain’s armband. Due to the resemblance to the rainbow flag, the international symbol of the LGBTI community, Qatar sees the band as a protest against its own laws that prohibit homosexuality.

    The fact that the Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk would not be allowed to put that captain’s armband on his arm was already announced in 2016, says sports historian Jurryt van de Vooren. He is co-author of Never again Qatar, a book about Fifa and human rights. In that year, FIFA banned the players of Scotland and England from wearing a poppy during their mutual World Cup qualifier on November 11, in memory of the victims of the First World War. ‘The FIFA regarded that as a political statement,’ says Van de Vooren. ‘That’s why I was convinced that the OneLove band wouldn’t be allowed either.’

    At the very last minute, FIFA on Monday changed the sanction for wearing the OneLove band from a fine that the penalized countries would be happy to pay, to a yellow card for the captain. Under loud protest from the ‘OneLove countries’ – ‘we feel betrayed by Fifa’, the English Football Association FA stated, ‘we have been blackmailed enormously, because Fifa has threatened far-reaching sanctions’, the German association stated – they went on their knees and wore the mandatory FIFA ‘no discrimination’ captain’s armband.

    Also flatly banned by Fifa, because they are political statements: the away shirt of Belgium and the shirt in which they warm up before the match. The first contains accents of rainbow colors and, invisible to the TV viewer, the word Love in the collar. The warm-up shirt is a fun mosaic of colors, some of which appear in the rainbow flag.

    Qatari security guards

    With the almost desperate banning of rainbow colors, FIFA violates its own agreements with the Qatari World Cup organization, says Van de Vooren. “Symbols like the rainbow flag would be allowed, just not in religious places. According to the KNVB, FIFA had agreed that with Qatar.’

    ‘I see things going wrong at the entrance gates of stadiums,’ says human rights researcher Heerdt of the Asser Institute. She received reports of spectators wearing a hat or T-shirt with rainbow colors and not being allowed inside. “I have to say: Fifa is on top of that.” According to Heerdt, employees of the union were quickly on site to point out their mistake to the wrongly or not instructed Qatari security guards and to immediately let the refused supporters through.

    During the World Cup, the organization will do its best, says the researcher, when the world looks at Qatar. No discrimination at the entrance gate, sufficient space for the experience of religions other than Islam and removing obstacles for the disabled. But what happens when the last game is over? LGBTI people in Qatar itself are now more or less safe, but will they be safe in the future? Countries that are now concerned about human rights in Qatar should continue to monitor this after the World Cup.’