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Football: Rainbow armbands and numbers in spotlight again

Matt Pearson AFP, Reuters, dpa
May 15, 2023

After players refused to play in a top-flight French match during an anti-homophobia campaign, the issue of rainbow colors has raised its head again. Rainbow armbands for captains may be allowed at the 2023 World Cup.

Alexandra Popp raises a fist in celebration
Alexandra Popp wore the rainbow armband at Euro 2022. But will she be able to do so at the World Cup?Image: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Whether or not captains could wear rainbow armbands at the men's World Cup in Qatar was one of many thorny issues that divided opinion and set FIFA on a collision course with some major European powers.

Six months on, the conversation rumbles on. On Saturday, two players from French Ligue 1 sides Toulouse and Nantes refused to play in a game that formed part of a campaign against homophobia. Zakaria Aboukhlal, of Toulouse, and Nantes' Mostafa Mohamed both decided they would not take the field in shirts featuring rainbow numbers.

"Respect is a value that I hold in great esteem. It extends to others, but it also encompasses respect for my own personal beliefs," said Moroccan international Aboukhlal on Twitter.

"Hence, I don't believe I am the most suitable person to participate in this campaign."

Guingamp's Senegalese defender Donatien Gomis reportedly ruled himself out of the Ligue 2 clash with Sochaux on Saturday for the same reason.

The National Union of Professional Footballers said it was "astonished" by the decision of the league, adding it was not up to the players to convey "collective messages." Several coaches took a similar stance.

On Monday,  French government spokesman Olivier Veran criticized the players' refusal.

"We have to defend values which unite us, and sport is also there to do that," Veran told broadcaster France 2. "Homophobia is not an opinion but an offense."

Stade Brestois coach Eric Roy said: "You can see that there are players who have a problem with it. Everyone is free to express their opinions. Personally, I have no problem with it. But there are players who may have a problem with it."

Women's World Cup poses questions for FIFA

The decision not to play and subsequent controversy will, no doubt, have been noted by FIFA, with the 2023 World Cup a shade over two months away. Many players and teams at the tournament want to wear armbands or show support for such campaigns in other ways.

Given the much higher numbers of openly gay footballers in the women's game, any ban would perhaps be even more contentious for players and coaches. They may not crumble to FIFA threats as easily as some men's sides did.

The chief executive of Football Australia, one of the co-hosts of the World Cup with New Zealand, believes it won't come to that. James Johnson recently told The Guardian that he thinks players will wear the armband and that discussions with FIFA around such gestures are ongoing.

"We've had very good dialogue with FIFA and it's meaningful," said Johnson. "They are not paying lip service to this. We're in the middle of that process and we're pretty confident and optimistic that we'll end up in a good place: a place where players have the ability to express themselves in certain areas, which keeps the players happy, it keeps the host nation happy and also FIFA happy as well. So I do think there'll be a resolution ahead of the Women's World Cup."

Germany players cover their mouths in a team photo
Germany men's players covered their mouths in Qatar after the rainbow armband was bannedImage: Javier Garcia/Shutterstock/IMAGO

Johnson added that support for other causes may also be permitted in the tournament, which would represent a U-turn from FIFA. The organization, run by Gianni Infantino, has previously fallen back on a statute that kits must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images, and the captain of each team "must wear the captain's armband provided by FIFA."

Any move to allow the armband would also appear to contradict what FIFA told Germany's football association, the DFB, in March. "FIFA has informed us that they want all participating nations to wear the FIFA captain's armband with the FIFA campaign," Germany team manager Maika Fischer told German newspaper Bild.

In response, a FIFA spokesperson stated: "At a team workshop earlier today FIFA was asked about equipment and competition regulations in relation to the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup. FIFA wishes to reiterate that no decision has been taken in relation to armbands. FIFA remains committed to ongoing dialogue with players and member associations."

WhileFootball Australia may be confident, there has still been no firm commitment from Infantino and co. Whatever decision they do take is unlikely to please everyone, as the past weekend in France showed.

Edited by: Jonathan Harding