DOHA, Qatar — As the photographers lined up at Khalifa International Stadium, preparing for the traditional but often perfunctory ritual of taking a team photo, Germany’s players made the World Cup their moment to take a stand.
Raising their right hands to their mouths and keeping them there until the last picture had been taken, Germany engaged in a silent act of rebellion against FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, which had prevented their captain from wearing a multicolored armband in the match as part of a social justice campaign.
The action came two days after FIFA had blocked not only Germany but several other European teams from wearing armbands promoting gay rights by threatening them with in-game discipline, a decision that has ultimately infuriated the teams — and led to accusations of bullying against the tournament organizer — but has ultimately been adhered too.
The campaign was meant to raise awareness of marginalized groups in the host country, Qatar, which criminalizes homosexual conduct. The team’s had notified FIFA about their plans in September but only got a response hours before England, the first among the teams to pledge to make a stand, was set to open its campaign on Monday. The teams said they had expected to be fined for breaching FIFA’s strict uniform regulations, but instead were told their captains would receive a yellow card.
“It wasn’t about making a political statement — human rights are non-negotiable,” Germany’s team said in a statement posted on its official Twitter account moments after the kickoff of its shock 2-1 loss. “That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us. Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice.”
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Germany has been among the most outspoken of the teams — and fan bases — on the issue and wider human rights concerns in Qatar, and displaying banners criticizing the tiny Gulf emirate and FIFA have been a regular sight at league games in Germany this season. Germany’s politicians have also angered Qatar, with outspoken criticism in the days leading up to the World Cup’s start.
That fury is likely to have grown on Wednesday. Even before the players made their on-field demonstration, Germany’s interior minister Nancy Faeser made her own statement up in the seats reserved for FIFA’s most important guests. Faeser arrived at the stadium in a pink suit. But by the time she had taken her seat next FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, she had removed the blazer to reveal the “One Love” branded multicolored armband that Germany’s captain Manuel Neuer and the others had been preparing to wear. Faeser, who is not a part of Germany’s delegation, cannot receive a yellow card.
The issue of armbands has shadowed the early days of the tournament, with FIFA’s attempts to completely shift focus to events on the field undermined by daily controversies over its prohibition on symbols supporting the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Such is the sensitivity that some fans have been confounded by overzealous security guards prohibiting clothing and banners that were not intended to be a form of protest, including one incident when a fan was barred from entering a stadium with the flag of Pernambuco, a Brazilian state.
FIFA on Wednesday did not comment on Germany’s protest. But others were far more vocal.
German officials were reported to be studying their legal options, and planning to take a complaint to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The chief executive of Denmark’s soccer federation, Jakob Jensen, even talked about the possibility of leaving FIFA, saying his organization had already decided not to endorse Infantino for re-election at a meeting in March where the president is the only candidate.
“We have been discussing it in the Nordic region since August,” Jensen said of the possibility that Denmark would leave the organization. “I’ve thought about it again. I imagine that there may be challenges if Denmark leaves on its own. But let us see if we cannot have a dialogue on things.
“I have to think about the question of how to restore confidence in FIFA. We must evaluate what has happened, and then we must create a strategy, also with our Nordic colleagues.”
FIFA’s silence on the matter since it announced a resolution with the teams has only increased speculation about whether it or Qatari officials are setting the guidelines for what is permissible inside the stadium. Tricolor flags, bearing the words “Free Palestine,” for example, were visible in the Tunisia section of Tuesday’s game against Denmark, a day after FIFA clamped down on Iranian supporters wearing T-shirts or banners criticizing the Iranian government.