Gag mimicked by German players, ministers wearing a rainbow armband in the gallery, threat of legal action: in the middle of the World Cup-2022, Fifa faces the dispersed revolt of a handful of European federations, a new step in the politicization of sport.
Northern Europe, furious minority
To scrutinize the positions of its 211 member federations, in particular of the 32 selections participating in the World Cup-2022, the football body should have had a calm tournament: the majority does not issue any public criticism targeting Qatar and does not reproach it, in particular, to criminalize same-sex relations.
Fifa boss Gianni Infantino, very vehement on Saturday to castigate Western “lesson givers”, therefore runs little risk: he is advancing towards re-election to a third term next March, the only candidate in the running in a system where each federation has one vote, whether it is Germany or Trinidad and Tobago.
However, the organization of Zurich, questioned daily on the subject, has difficulty in justifying the coherence between the “inclusiveness” that it displays and the refusal to let the captains of seven European selections (Germany, Denmark, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Wales, Switzerland) wear the “One Love” anti-homophobia armband.
Threats behind closed doors
The federations concerned deplored the decision, but it was above all the method that upset them: asked for months to authorize or not this colored armband, Fifa did not deliver any clear answer before the tournament.
By letter, its president Gianni Infantino distilled a vague message, urging the 32 participants in the World Cup to “focus on football”, without letting the sport-king “be drawn into every ideological or political battle”.
And it was not until Monday that the seven selections who wanted to wear the armband finally threw in the towel: revealing that they had been threatened with sporting sanctions never made public, they wanted to avoid this risk for their teams.
However, the leaders and players of the countries concerned, in addition to their personal convictions, encounter “societal pressure which pushes them to display their conformity with the times”, estimates Pim Verschuuren, specialist in sports geopolitics at the University of Rennes II. .
– To each their own symbol –
Hence the variety of responses adopted since Monday, the most spectacular being that of the German players on Wednesday, who ostensibly put their hands in front of their mouths in the traditional team photo which preceded their match against Japan.
“With social networks, we have an instantaneous political gesture. In a few minutes, that of the Germans was seen by a few million people”, observes Pim Verschuuren.
No selection followed suit – especially as they lost 2-1, a defeat noted by many of their competitors questioned on the subject – but the Welsh unfurled a rainbow flag on Wednesday at their camp base in Doha, and their supporters brought multicolored hats to the Wales-USA match on Monday, some of which were confiscated by stadium security.
On the political side, the German Minister of the Interior and then the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs in turn wore the One Love armband in the official gallery on Wednesday, a “message vis-à-vis their respective public opinions”, according to Pim Verschuuren.
– Towards legal proceedings? –
For Fifa, however, the most serious threat is being prepared behind the scenes: the German Football Federation (DFB) indicated on Tuesday that it was preparing an appeal against the ban on armbands with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a move envisaged by its English counterpart and carefully followed by other countries.
However, what is at stake goes beyond the mere question of the armband, and even football: the debate touches on the freedom of expression of athletes, traditionally very restricted on the field, but increasingly demanded at a time of knees on the ground and ethical questioning of athletes.
And all sports bodies know this perilous path: “These are not organizations that write laws, they are global associations, which have to manage enormous religious, social and political differences. Until then, apoliticism has been their best argument to sell the competitions”, emphasizes Pim Verschuuren.