In 2018, FIFA selected Russia to host the World Cup, joining the Olympics in selling Vladimir Putin one of the world’s premier sporting events to put a little shine on his repressive autocratic regime. In exchange, Putin awarded FIFA boss Gianni Infantino the Order of Friendship. Four years later, Russia have plunged Europe into a land war on a scale not seen in eighty years.
Four years later, the World Cup is in Qatar. Moved to the winter to accommodate a repressive, human rights abusing petrostate with no football heritage. Previously, in 1978, the World Cup went to Argentina, FIFA happy to help prop up a bloody military dictatorship whose American-backed leaders were eventually convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, with games played adjacent detention centres where political prisoners were tortured and killed.
Even earlier, in 1934, Benito Mussolini was allowed to use the World Cup to promote fascism abroad and—with the help of widely suspected bribes and threats—prop up domestic support and promote the superiority of the Italian race by way of his nation’s eventual victory.
All of which is to say in a roundabout way that while sportswashing as a widely used term may be relatively recent, FIFA really don’t mind using the world’s most popular sport to promote the very worst in humanity and that the federation and those who run it have over the past century accumulated a great deal of blood on their hands and continue to do so.
Which brings us around to today’s news that FIFA appear to have successfully bullied the national federations from showing even the slightest dissent at this year’s sportswashing event in Qatar, where as recently as Sunday Liverpool and Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk had said that he fully intended to wear a One Love captain’s armband meant to promote equality and protest the state of LGBTQ+ rights in the host country.
“I will wear the One Love armband tomorrow,” Van Dijk had said on Sunday. “Nothing changed from our point of view. If I will get a yellow card for wearing it then we would have to discuss it because I don’t like to play while being on a yellow.”
Early on Monday, the situation changed as FIFA—predictably, perhaps—declared that any captain’s armband not officially sanctioned by FIFA would result in a yellow card being shown to the player wearing it.
As a result, Netherlands has now said it will bow to FIFA’s threat, proving their intention to wear the armband was never so much a genuine act of protest—as by its definition one enters into an act of protest knowing it has the potential to extract a personal cost—as an empty PR gesture. Other countries that intended to wear the armband, including England and Denmark, are said to be considering their options.
“It was not possible to reach a reasonable solution together,” read today’s statement from the Netherlands National Team. “We stand for the OneLove message and will continue to spread it, but our first priority at the World Cup is winning the games [and] you don’t want the captain to start the game with a yellow card.”
None of this is, perhaps, surprising. The choices FIFA and current president Gianni Infantino have made in bringing the World Cup to Qatar and now in the manner they have sought to defend that indefensible decision are hardly surprising in the historical context, and the only real power any fans have is to deny FIFA and their sponsors money when possible and to promote awareness of both the sportswashing aspects of the the current project and the historical context.
Update: England and the rest of the European nations that planned to wear a One Love armband have all now bowed to FIFA pressure, showing a lack of commitment to any protest that might extract a personal cost.