England feared ‘unlimited liability’ on captains in dropping armband protest World Cup 2022

England, Wales and five other European nations feared their captains would be exposed to “unlimited liability” and would have faced suspensions if they had defied Fifa’s banning of the pro-diversity OneLove armband during the World Cup.

Despite facing criticism for backing down after coming under pressure from Fifa, the English Football Association’s options were limited by concerns that the sporting sanctions for Harry Kane could have been worse than an instant booking if the captain had worn the armband against Iran. There were also fears that Gareth Southgate’s side could have been prevented from entering the field.

The FA’s worries were shared by the other six countries involved in the OneLove campaign after talks with world football’s governing body, with those close to the process left with the impression that “Fifa could do anything” to any captain who wore the armband in Qatar.

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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The German federation has described Fifa’s behavior as “extreme blackmail” and sources have indicated that there was no clarity over whether the captains would merely receive a caution.

England, Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark feared their captains could be banned. It was unclear whether any suspension would be limited to one match. None of the countries were prepared to put their players in that position. A source said that the captains would have risked “unlimited liability” if they had defied Fifa’s warnings.

Separately, the FA was concerned that England’s game against Iran would not have started if Kane had tried to leave the dressing room with the armband. The FA is exploring if it will be legally possible to challenge the threat of sporting sanctions, and there has been fury within the seven associations about Fifa’s behavior.

Suggestions that Kane could have created an iconic moment by walking on to the pitch with the armband and receiving an instant booking are misplaced. The yellow card would have been shown in the dressing room, stripping away any potential symbolism.

Southgate, speaking before Friday’s game against the USA, was asked about the threat of sanctions for Kane. “I don’t know all the ins and outs because I wasn’t in the meeting but there was definitely a feeling there were sanctions and not all of those were really clear, I think, so the decision was taken out of the hands of Harry,” England’s head coach said.

“The decision from the organization was: ‘We’re not even putting the armband in the dressing room.’ There is no discussion. The player had no say.”

Germany’s players were praised for covering their mouths with their hands to suggest they had been gagged by Fifa before their game against Japan on Wednesday. Six players, including the captain, Manuel Neuer, also wore Adidas boots with rainbow stitching during the team’s shock 2-1 defeat against Japan, and the squad sported tops with rainbow colors on their sleeves in the warm-up.

Germany have faced no punishment from Fifa, but Southgate questioned whether there would be any value in England mounting a similar form of protest on Friday.

“I’m quite comfortable with our position and I think we should be confident in what we stand for,” Southgate said. “There was a plan – we weren’t able to carry out that plan. What do we do now? Do we all try to outdo each other on a gesture that, however we do it, probably won’t be enough.

“We want to support the LGBTQ community in particular and recognize that a lot of those people aren’t here with us, and we wanted them here with us. But we could also rush into doing things that don’t really make any difference.

German players cover their mouths in protest before their game against Japan.
German players cover their mouths in protest before their game against Japan. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock

“I understand that it is going to be uncomfortable for people because I could be criticized, the captain has been criticized, the organization will be criticized. I’m very comfortable with what I stand for, and how I deal with people every day of my life is more important than a statement that might land well and might not.”

Kane trained on Thursday and will start on Friday after an injury scare. Southgate indicated that England, who would seal progress from Group B by beating the USA, will name an unchanged side against Gregg Berhalter’s team. James Maddison is still recovering from a knee injury.

Harry Maguire, who has recovered from the dehydration that forced him off against Iran, has opened up on the criticism he has faced and compared it to the negativity aimed at his former Manchester United teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. “He’s one of the greatest players ever and gets criticized day in, day out,” he said. “So if it’s going to happen to him, I think it’s part and parcel of the game.”

Southgate revealed that Prince William had told England’s players to block out distractions on social media. “We couldn’t have paid him for better advice,” Southgate said.

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