DOHA, Qatar – What FIFA lacks in a spine, it makes up for in stupidity.
Its grand plan to prevent European players from showing support for the LGBTQ community during the World Cup by threatening them with yellow cards is backfiring in spectacular fashion. Germany used its official team photo before its opener Wednesday to mock FIFA’s edict, and Manuel Neuer and several teammates wore shoes with rainbow stripes painted on them.
Germany’s interior minister, Nancy Faeser, trolled FIFA president Gianni Infantino by wearing the “OneLove” armband while sitting next to him in a suite at Al Khalifa Stadium. A day earlier, former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt wore a dress with rainbow-colored sleeves as she, too, sat next to Infantino.
The head of Denmark’s soccer federation even suggested leaving FIFA could be an option.
“It wasn’t about making a political statement – human rights are non-negotiable. That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us,” the German team said in a statement accompanying its team photo, in which all the players covered their mouths with their hands.
“Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position.”
Had FIFA simply let the players wear the “OneLove” armband during the World Cup, as they did during the European Championship, it would have been a story for a day or two. Maybe three. But Infantino couldn’t let it go, absolutely petrified of anything that might offend his sugar daddy, Qatar emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
So instead of a small gesture that, quite honestly, would have gone unnoticed by most of the people watching the World Cup, Infantino has turned the armbands into a cause celebre that will continue so long as the tournament does. Odds are, the furor will only grow louder.
TAKE THAT, FIFA:German players cover mouths before World Cup team photo
“It was the right sign to show the people that, yeah, we try to help however we can,” Germany midfielder Kai Havertz said. “And of course, FIFA makes it not easy for us.”
But the fiasco is a self-made one for FIFA.
Bringing a global party to a country where women are second-class citizens, at best, and homosexuality remains illegal was always going to be problematic. FIFA made it worse by acquiescing as Qatar reneged on one promise after another, rather than explaining why the hostility toward women and LGBTQ people would only create larger problems.
By cracking down on these fairly innocuous calls for tolerance – the armbands, training shirts with the slogan “Human rights for all,” the word “Love” on the inside collar of one of Belgium’s jerseys – FIFA only called more attention to them. Instead of placating the players and national team officials, FIFA’s heavy-handedness only made them want to dig in harder.
“We stand for our values and for human rights. We wanted to show that,” Neuer, who has been one of the most vocal supporters of the “OneLove” campaign, said after Wednesday’s game, according to The Athletic.
Sure, it might have grated on Qatari authorities to see these small strips of rainbow-colored fabric and hear the criticisms of human rights abuses. But wouldn’t it have been far preferable to having the whole world know of, and be turned off by, your intolerance?
A world you are trying to entice to come visit you, I might add.
FIFA no doubt took it as a victory Monday when Germany, England, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Wales announced their players wouldn’t wear the armbands for fear it would jeopardize their availability. But it was short-lived, as anyone with any sense could have predicted.
By trying to appease its hosts, FIFA only succeeded in making the Qataris look worse. Not its smartest move. Not smart at all.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.