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Opinion: FIFA has double standards on 'no politics'

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Mark Meadows
December 8, 2022

"Free Palestine" signs and Palestinian flags abound at the Qatar World Cup. But FIFA does nothing despite having clamped down on rainbow armbands.

Morocco's players celebrate on the ptch holding a Palestinian flag
Morocco's players celebrate their win over Spain with a Palestinian flagImage: Martin Meissner/AP/picture alliance

Rules only make sense if they are consistently applied. Whatever your view on the Middle East and the future of the Palestinian Territories, taking their flag onto a football pitch at the World Cup surely counts as a political statement.

Morocco players had a Palestinian flag on the pitch after their last-16 win over Spain in Qatar and previous matches while the first Arab World Cup has seen a plethora of "Free Palestine" messages from fans in and outside stadiums.

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It is obviously difficult for FIFA to stop this. There are huge sensitivities around the topic in the Arab world and clamping down would almost certainly cause huge controversy. But FIFA has made a rod for its own back by already making clear at this tournament that political statements are not allowed in football.

The OneLove multi-colored armband furor was the big story at this World Cup. Seven European captains wanted to wear it in support of diversity. Rainbow colors are associated with the LGBT+ community but same-sex relationships are banned in Qatar, so FIFA kicked up a big fuss and said players would receive unspecified disciplinary action and the teams caved.

The long-held FIFA mantra of "no politics" was a hill Gianni Infantino was willing to go to war on with his most illustrious federations such as Germany and England, especially because he did not want to upset his Qatari hosts.

A close up photograph of Manuel Neuer wearing the One Love armband over his jersey
Germany's Manuel Neuer wore the armband in a World Cup warm-up against Oman.Image: Ulmer/Teamfoto/IMAGO

But, on the Palestinian flag, FIFA has said nothing despite being contacted by DW and other media. The governing body found time to put out a video release of Infantino saying it had been the best group stage ever, even though the last 16 had just finished. It also commented rightly and heartfelt on the death of a migrant worker at a hotel used by Saudi Arabia in the group stage.

FIFA's get-out

But FIFA and Qatar are not responding to the Palestinian issue because they know they have backed themselves into a corner. If rainbow armbands are a political statement then so is "free Palestine." But they don't want to crack down on this because it will cause such a rumpus among Arabs.

FIFA's get-out is that it admitted "Palestine" with its flag into the organization as a member in 1998. They play World Cup qualifiers in the Asian Football Confederation. Israel, incidentally, plays under Europe's UEFA to keep it apart from Arab states.

FIFA, if it was to say anything, would probably point out that as the Palestinians are FIFA members then the use of the flag is not political. It would just be like the Morocco team holding up a Moroccan flag or, for some strange reason, an El Salvador flag. FIFA would not count it as political as it is simply the flag of a FIFA member.

A streaker runs on the pitch holding a Palestine flag in his hand
A Tunisian fan enters the pitch at the World Cup with a Palestinian flag.Image: Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

The governing body would also hide behind the idea that its disciplinary committee is independent — but that clearly was not the case with the armband saga. The pressure was coming right from the top.

If FIFA insists that political messaging in football is not allowed then that is absolutely fine, but it must be clamped down on in every respect. It cannot be one rule for some and another rule for others.

Or better still, given it is so hard to police, abandon the regulation altogether if you don't enforce it evenly.

Edited by: James Thorogood

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