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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Marina Hyde

England’s armband activism was heroic – until it met the mere threat of a yellow card

John Stones puts a Fifa-approved captain’s armband on Kieran Trippier during England’s World Cup match against Iran in Doha, Qatar, 21 November 2022
John Stones puts a Fifa-approved captain’s armband on Kieran Trippier during England’s World Cup match against Iran in Qatar, 21 November 2022. Photograph: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

So England didn’t wear the OneLove armband in the end. The gesture was gesture-trumped by Fifa, which gestured towards the referee’s pocket to indicate a yellow card would be forthcoming. Ahead of England’s World Cup opener against Iran yesterday, the Football Association put out a joint statement with other no-longer-participating nations, explaining “we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings”. That “including bookings” really puts it into perspective. #ActivismIsHard.

Without wishing to undermine this heroically short-lived civil rights moment even further, what really is OneLove, with its off-brand Pride rainbow? The whole thing feels as weirdly and carefully vague as the bar orders of soap-opera characters, who walk into pubs and ask simply for “a pint”. A pint of what? OneLove of what?

So anodyne is the wider armband advocacy movement that it seems concerned above all else with not causing offence, to the point where it is impossible to imagine it sitting even very distantly on a continuum with sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s epic podium protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics (and the solidarity of the silver medallist, Peter Norman), or Muhammad Ali’s heroic career self-harm. Instead, #armbandgate feels perfectly contextualised in an era in which huge numbers of people became conveniently convinced that activism is something that happens in a web browser. After such a swift climbdown by the various nations, it would be nice to think the entire episode shows the absolute limits of this type of “change-making”.

Whenever I see people arguing hour after hour about their supposed causes on social media, I no longer even think of them as working in the service of those causes, but simply in the (perhaps unwitting) service of whichever Silicon Valley billionaire owns the digital space where they’re doing it. As serious tech experts have long pointed out, people stay longer on these platforms when they’re angry, so the best way to keep them there – where the techlords can monetise them – is for their algorithms to fan that anger. So that’s what they do. Spent all day arguing about Jeremy Corbyn/Boris Johnson/whatever on Twitter? Hate to break it to you, but you don’t work for your faction; you just work for Elon Musk. Try not to choke on it.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino with Qatari prime minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdul Aziz Al Thani at England’s match against Iran in Qatar, 21 November 2022
Fifa president Gianni Infantino with Qatari prime minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdul Aziz Al Thani at England’s match against Iran in Qatar, 21 November 2022. Photograph: Jonas Ekströmer/TT/Rex/Shutterstock

Speaking of overlords, we must conclude that Fifa president Gianni Infantino did not “feel gay” yesterday. On Saturday, Infantino gave a speech in which he said he did feel gay, and disabled, and like a migrant worker, because – I think I have this right – people teased him about his red hair when he was a child. This put me in mind of the late football pundit Jimmy Hill’s insistence that the N-word was “funny”. “Why should that be any more of an offence,” Hill wondered idiotically, “than someone calling me chinny?” It was the year 2004 at the time – and, even more incredibly, not a whole lot seems to have changed in Zurich’s corridors of power today.

As for what I suppose we’ll have to characterise as the FA’s thinking on all this, there are really only two possibilities. The first is that they knew very well Fifa would prohibit it, because they always do, so always planned to fold at the first sign of threat (which they did). The second is that they literally didn’t even realise this was how it would play out, in which case I do hope their football campaign for this tournament is better strategised, otherwise it’s going to fall apart at the first sign of trouble.

In a modern game in which they’re everywhere, there is something very will-this-do about armbands in general. They feel like little more than a hashtag-heavy social media template. You retweet it, you undo the retweet. You make a big show of wearing it, then you discard it the minute you’re threatened with a yellow. Easy come, easy go.

It seems strange to have to state this, when historically it was axiomatic: but true activism typically involves rather higher stakes than this, and at the very least the potential for some kind of personal sacrifice. As we can see from the hugely perilous collectivist endeavours unfolding in Iran, it is rather harder work to refuse to wear the hijab than it is to be banned from wearing the armband. No one is remotely saying that England players need to take to the streets and risk their lives for a cause they say they truly believe in. But taking a yellow is arguably doable – and if it honestly isn’t, then don’t even bother trailing the gesture in the first place. It’s an insult to those who do seriously put themselves out.

Putting yourself out cuts different ways, of course, some of them also ridiculous. David Beckham’s rumoured 150m pieces of silver to promote Qatar is unquestionably a piece of activism, and is – regrettably – worth more than countless armbands. You can even see it has involved David laying down some of his personal desires for the cause. Scowling down from the dignitaries’ seats at the tournament, Beckham has been wearing the expression of a man who knows he’s never going to get his knighthood now. I’m sure the Qatari regime thanks him for his sacrifice.

Sacrifices that don’t benefit you are harder. Structural change requires structural action, and plastic gestures will generate plastic results. England and any other nations who genuinely wish to take a stand could still come up with a better form of protest at this World Cup. There is plenty of time for creative collective action – but is there truly the will?

  • Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

  • A year in Westminster with John Crace, Marina Hyde and Armando Iannucci
    Join John Crace, Marina Hyde and Armando Iannucci for a look back at another chaotic year in Westminster, live at Kings Place in London, or via livestream.
    Wednesday 7 December 2022, 7pm-8.15pm GMT, book tickets here

  • What Just Happened?! by Marina Hyde (Guardian Faber, £16). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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