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World Cup teams drop rainbow armbands after FIFA threats

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FIFA’s threat of on-field punishment for players forced World Cup teams to back down Monday and abandon a plan for their captains to wear armbands seen as a rebuke to host nation Qatar’s human rights record.

Just hours before the first players wearing the armbands in support of the “One Love” campaign were set to take the field, FIFA warned they would be immediately shown yellow cards — changing the calculus for the seven European teams, which may have expected to merely be fined. The displays are a violation of FIFA rules.

The standoff was just the latest dispute that threatened to overshadow the play. Since being awarded the World Cup hosting rights in 2010, conservative Muslim Qatar has faced criticism of its treatment of low-paid migrant workers as well as its criminalization of homosexuality.

The armband decision came three days after beer sales at stadiums were suddenly banned under pressure from the Qatari government and two days after FIFA president Gianni Infantino delivered an extraordinary tirade defending the host nation’s human rights record.

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The captains of seven European nations had vowed to wear armbands carrying the heart-shaped, multi-coloured logo of the “One Love” campaign, which promotes inclusion and diversity in soccer and society. That set up the prospect of viewers worldwide seeing a symbol of disapproval with the host country and defiance of FIFA on the arms of England’s Harry Kane, the Netherlands’ Virgil van Dijk and Wales’s Gareth Bale on Monday.

Threats of yellow cards

In the end, the teams said they couldn’t sacrifice success on the field. A yellow card is a warning, but two yellows would see a player sent off the field for the rest of the game and banned from the next match — a sanction that is intensified in the World Cup format, where teams play just three games before the elimination rounds begin.

“As national federations we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including bookings,” the seven soccer federations said in a joint statement.

The captains of Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark had also pledged to wear the armbands in the coming days.

“Our number one priority at the World Cup is to win the games,” the Dutch soccer federation said in a separate statement. “You don’t want the captain to start the match with a yellow card.”

The risk of getting a second yellow, which would see a player sent off the field for the rest of the game and banned from the next, is particularly tricky in a tournament where teams play just three games before the knockout rounds begin.

National soccer federations and fan associations lashed out at FIFA for its decision to penalize the players. Danish soccer federation head Jakob Jensen told Danish broadcaster TV2 that the organization was “extremely disappointed with FIFA,” and German soccer federation president Bernd Neuendorf called it “another low blow.”

“FIFA today prohibited a statement for diversity and human rights — those are values to which it is committed in its own statutes,” Neuendorf told reporters in Qatar. “From our point of view, this is more than frustrating and, I think, an unprecedented action in World Cup history.”

The global players’ union FIFPRO called the FIFA move “disappointing.”

“Players must have a right to express their support for human rights on and off the field of play and we will support any of them who will use their own platforms to do so,” the union said. “We maintain that a rainbow flag is not a political statement but an endorsement of equality and thus a universal human right.”

England’s Football Supporters Association said it felt betrayed by FIFA.

“Today we feel contempt for an organization that has shown its true values by giving the yellow card to players and the red card to tolerance,” the FSA said.

Gurchaten Sandhu, of the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, said that FIFA put “athletes in a very, very awkward” position.

“You’ve bound the hands of the national teams. They’re there to compete,” he said.

He also criticized Infantino’s speech on Saturday in which the soccer chief defended Qatar and lectured Europeans who have criticized the emirate’s human rights record. In that speech, Infantino said: “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker.”

Sandhu took issue with Infantino’s choice of words, saying: “You don’t feel gay. You are gay.”

He also took issue with Infantino’s defence of Qatar on Saturday, during which he lectured Europeans who have criticized the emirate’s human rights record and said he “felt” gay, like a woman and like a migrant worker. Rights groups have criticized Qatar’s treatment of those three groups of people.

“You don’t feel gay. You are gay,” Sandhu said.

It wasn’t immediately clear what, if any, influence Qatar’s autocratic government had on the decision. The Qatari government and its Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which oversees the World Cup, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Regulations breach

The European plans were in clear breach of World Cup regulations and FIFA’s general rules on team equipment at its games, but Danish soccer federation head Jakob Jensen told Danish broadcaster TV2 that the organization was “extremely disappointed with FIFA.”

“They have known about our position for a long time,” Jensen said. “We stand for inclusion, just like FIFA says they stand for inclusion. I don’t see how our message is in conflict with the messages FIFA wants to send.”

FIFA raised the prospect of yellow cards on Sunday during a testy meeting with European soccer federations.

The soccer body’s equipment regulations state: “For FIFA final competitions, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband provided by FIFA.”

Its proposal, announced Saturday, was for captains to wear armbands with socially aware, though generic, slogans. In that offer, armbands reading “No Discrimination” — the only one of its chosen slogan aligned with the European teams’ wish — would appear only at the quarterfinal stage.

On Monday, it offered a compromise, saying captains of all 32 teams “will have the opportunity” to wear an armband with the slogan “No Discrimination” in the group games.

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James questions media disparity in coverage of Irving tweet, Jerry Jones photo

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James has questions about the disparity of media scrutiny he believes is being applied to a 1957 photo of Jerry Jones and the recent controversy surrounding Kyrie Irving.

The photo of Jones, captured by an Associated Press photographer, shows him standing among a group of white students at North Little Rock High School in Arkansas on Sept. 9, 1957. The group was blocking six Black students who were attempting to desegregate the school and news reports said that moments after the image was taken, the students were shoved down a flight of stairs.

The photo accompanied a Washington Post story last month that was about Jones’ legacy as owner of the Dallas Cowboys, including how the team has never had a Black head coach.

James has spoken often about the Cowboys — he was a fan of the team for years before saying in October on Instagram Live that he has switched allegiances — but said Wednesday that he found it interesting that he wasn’t asked about the Jones photo.

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“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, ‘I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America,” James said after the Los Angeles Lakers’ game on Wednesday night. “And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, ‘Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving was suspended for an eventual eight games by the Brooklyn Nets earlier this season after the guard — a former teammate of James’ with the Cleveland Cavaliers — tweeted a link to a film containing antisemitic material.

James was asked by reporters about that last month, and he made clear that he thought Irving made a significant mistake.

“There’s no place in this world for it,” James said in November. “Nobody can benefit from that and I believe what Kyrie did caused some harm to a lot of people. … We as humans, none of us are perfect. But I hope he understands how what he did and the actions that he took were just harmful to a lot of people.”

Jones told reporters last week that he was at that school entrance as “a curious kid.” He was 14 at the time.

“That was, gosh, 65 years ago, and (I was a) curious kid,” Jones said. “I didn’t know at the time the monumental event really that was going on. And I’m sure glad that we’re a long way from that.”

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Canada coach John Herdman disputes Croatian counterpart’s account of skipped post-match handshake

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Canada head coach John Herdman during a World Cup match against Croatia, at the Khalifa International Stadium, in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 27.The Associated Press

Canada coach John Herdman is disputing his Croatian counterpart’s account of why there was no handshake after their World Cup game.

Herdman had antagonized the Croatian camp with a heated postgame message to his players after Canada’s opening 1-0 loss to Belgium at the soccer showcase. Asked in a pitch-side interview what he had said in a postgame huddle to his players, Herdman replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff – Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets.”

That prompted a stern lecture from Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic on the need for respect. And after Croatia beat the Canadians 4-1 Sunday, Dalic was asked if he had a chance to shake hands with Herdman following the final whistle.

“I did not see the other head coach after the match,” he said through an interpreter. “When I lose I always congratulate the winner. He was not there and that’s his way of doing things. He’s obviously mad. He is a good coach. He is a high-quality professional. But it will take some time for him to learn some things.”

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Herdman, whose postgame news conference preceded Dalic’s on Sunday, disputed that account Wednesday when asked about it.

“Look, we shook hands before the game. So that happened,” he said. “At the end of the game, the usual process – no different than [with Belgium coach] Roberto Martinez. You shake hands with the coach, then you go shake hands with the referee.

“When I turned round, [Dalic] was already off down the touchline, which is his right to do. He’s celebrating. He’s just beaten Canada. It was a big celebration for him. He was off and I couldn’t get to shake his hand. I went into the field, shook the ref’s hand, shook players’ hands. And didn’t get to see him.

“That moment’s gone. We’re into process now – team huddle, see your fans, flash interviews, calm yourself down so you don’t say anything and move on.”

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