Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has sharply criticised as “absolutely extraordinary” Fifa’s threat to penalise teams that wear an armband to support LGBTQ+ rights.
The Minister accused soccer’s governing body of acting politically to “limit freedom of expression through sport”. It was “very regrettable” and it showed the organisation in a “pretty poor light”, he said.
Mr Coveney said “in some ways it’s unfair to criticise players. They are sports people. They’re not politicians,” following the decision of seven EU nations participating in the tournament not to wear OneLove armbands to support the LGBTQ+ community after Fifa threatened to penalise players with yellow cards.
The band contains the rainbow colours associated with the Pride flag and had been set to be a strong statement in Qatar, a country that criminalises same-sex relationships.
The Minister was speaking as he answered questions late Tuesday night in the Dáil about advice to Irish football supporters travelling to Qatar for the World Cup.
Ireland has a consular team on the ground in Doha that is “second to none internationally” and is “ready and waiting to support people if they need support”.
He told Sinn Féin’s Ruairí Ó Murchú and Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin that comprehensive World Cup travel advice for Qatar is available on the Department of Foreign Affairs website.
Citizens are requested to look at and monitor this advice, and to follow the department on social media for updates, he said.
Mr Griffin said he had concerns about Qatar and Irish citizens who might travel there for the World Cup and “may not be used to the situation there” and who might “get into trouble”.
He said that “there’s very few sporting events around the world where you wouldn’t see a fellow wearing a Kerry jersey so I think it’s only a matter of time before we see one on the television screens”.
Mr Ó Murchú said: “I’d like to see a greater level of courage from some of the football associations and some of the footballers”.
He cited the concerns about how the World Cup ended up being in Qatar and “we are all aware of the treatment of women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and the disgraceful way migrant workers have been dealt with”.
The Louth TD said “there was an awful lot of talk before hand in relation to what they were going to do in highlighting these particular issues and that hasn’t happened”.
He asked Mr Coveney if he agreed with the comments of former Ireland captain Roy Keane that the games should not have taken place in Qatar.
The TV soccer pundit also believed that England and Wales, as two of the seven EU nations participating, made a big mistake in not wearing the rainbow armband in support of the LGBTQ+ community because of the threat of Fifa sanction.
The Minister said it was “unfair to criticise players” who were not politicians but if they want to make a political statement they should be allowed to.
But he added: “I think it is absolutely extraordinary that Fifa has effectively chosen to lean on national football associations in different countries to prevent players wearing an armband to support LGBT+ rights.
“That is a political intervention by Fifa to actually limit freedom of expression through sport, which is worthy of significant mention and criticism.”
He said he believed that any player should be entitled to wear a rainbow-coloured armband because of concerns they may have about LGBTQ+ rights in that part of the world, or about “any other rights that are consistent with international law”.
The Minister said the action of soccer’s governing body was “very regrettable and it shows Fifa in a pretty poor light to put it mildly”.
Labour foreign affairs spokesman Brendan Howlin praised “the bravery of Iran’s national soccer team yesterday” for refusing to sing their national anthem before the match against England, in solidarity with demonstrations that have rocked the regime in Iran.
Mr Howlin said “while others didn’t take a stand they risked their very safety by taking a very clear stand against their own government on a very fundamental issue”.
Human rights groups say more than 450 people have died since protests started after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurd who died in police custody after being arrested for not wearing the hijab in conformity with Iranian law. As many as 55 security force members have been killed.