FIFA bans OneLove armband under threat of yellow card. But is that even possible?

It has been hard to miss the past few days: the discussion about the OneLove armband that several captains would wear at the Football World Cup. This band stands for unification and speaks out against discrimination. Despite this message of respect, FIFA banned it.

After several National Football Associations announced that their captain would wear a OneLove armband, FIFA intervened. According to FIFA, captains had to wear a band designated by FIFA. Wearing the OneLove armband would be sanctioned with a yellow card. But is that even possible, a yellow card for wearing the OneLove armband? I believe the FIFA-regulations and the Laws of the Game do not allow for that.

In this blog, I will explain that a violation of the so-called FIFA Equipment Regulations, by wearing another than designated captain’s armband, cannot lead to an on-field sanction imposed by a referee.

I will also explain that that under the Laws of the Game it is unlikely a that referee can impose a yellow card for wearing the OneLove armband, as an impermissible statement.

DESIGNATED band instead of OneLove armband: Equipment Regulations

In response to the announcement by several countries to wear the OneLove armband, FIFA itself brought forward its anti-discrimination campaign, that provided for another captain’s armband. This armband bears the text “No Discrimination” and a heart, just like the OneLove armband. So the same message, but without the rainbow colors. FIFA then drew the national football associations’ attention to Article 13.8.1 of the FIFA Equipment Regulations which stipulates that the captain had to wear the band provided by FIFA.

For FIFA Final Competitions, the captain of each Team must wear the captain's armband provided by FIFA. If FIFA provides a choice of captain's armbands, the captain should wear the one that contrasts most clearly with the Sleeve on which it is worn.

Article 13.8.1 FIFA Equipment Regulations

Not only players, but also staff must comply with the Equipment Regulations (article 27 (1) of the FIFA World Cup 2022 Regulations).

Interestingly, the mandatory no-discrimination band was only to be used from the knock-out stages of the tournament. Considering that there would have been no mandatory armband during the group stage of this World Cup, Football Associations could decide on the band themselves. 

Bringing this campaign forward can thus not be dissociated with the announced OneLove campaign of several Football Associations. Even more interesting is that certain teams also wear other bands than the no-discriminination band. E.g. Portugal used a “Save the Planet” band (against Uruguay), which is also a different band than the “No discrimination” band the FIFA appeared to designate.

What about the yellow card?

The rule is clear. When FIFA issues a captain’s armband, it must be worn. However, the question is what is the sanction for non-compliance? According to statements made by the Football Associations, FIFA threatened with a yellow card. However, the FIFA Equipment Regulations do not provide for such a sanction at all.

Sanctioning a breach FIFA Equipment Regulations is governed by the FIFA Disciplinary Code (art. 1.3.2).

The FIFA Disciplinary Code, as amended from time to time, will govern any action taken to enforce these Regulations.

Art. 1.3.2 FIFA Disciplinary Code

With regard to the World Cup, FIFA confirms this in the FIFA World-Cup 2022 Regulations (art. 11.4).

However, the FIFA Disciplinary Code does not provide for on-field sanctions such as a yellow card, but only for sanctions determined by a “judicial body” (Article 27 and e.g.  Articles 5 and 24). These bodies are the Disciplinary Committee and the Appeal Committee (Art. 28(1) FIFA Disciplinary Code). The referee is not appointed as a judicial body.

These judicial bodies can impose various penalties, defined in Article 6 paragraphs 1 and 2 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code. A yellow card in a match is not listed as a possible sanction. 

This does not mean that a player cannot be sanctioned at all. Such review takes place after the match. Other penalties can be imposed, such as a warning, reprimand, fine or, for example, a suspension. Thus, a captain wearing another armband than provide provided by FIFA can be penalized. Even with a suspension, but not during the match.

The rules of the game: Forbidden Statement?

It is also not surprising that the Disciplinary Code does not provide for on-field sanctions such as a yellow card. The on-field disciplinary matters are part of the “Laws of the Game“, which are not set by FIFA, but by the International Football Association Board (IFAB).

These rules of the game also apply to the matches of the World Cup 2022.

All matches shall be played in accordance with the Laws of the Game in force and as laid down by The International Football Association Board. In the case of any discrepancy in the interpretation of the Laws of the Game, the English version shall be authoritative.

Art. 35 (1) FIFA World Cup 2022 Regulations

The Laws of the Game do not provide for a yellow card for violating the FIFA Equipment Regulations. These laws do however provide for their own rules regarding equipment. Wearing equipment in violation of these rules could lead to a yellow card. But only when a player refuses to remove the banned equipment after a warning or when it enters the pitch unregulated. The main rule is that a player first receives a request to remove the prohibited item (Law 4.6).

The Laws of the Game also do not prescribe that a captain must wear an armband designated by the organization. However, they do prescribe that a captain’s armband may not contain a political statement or hateful or provocative message. Wearing it could even lead to a yellow card. An emblem promoting respect is usually permitted (Law 4.5).

Given the circumstances I cannot imagine that the OneLove armband should be penalized under the Laws of the Game, rules because it would carry a political or offensive message. The OneLove message does not have that character. It is a call (an emblem) for respect.

That the OneLove message should be considered as such, is evidenced by the fact that the band has been worn many times in various competitions without any sanction. Moreover, an almost identical message (without the rainbow colours) appears on the captain’s armband provided by FIFA. In my view this confirms the One-Love message is not banned under the Laws of the Game.

If a yellow card for the OneLove armband is not possible, why this decision by FIFA?

What FIFA has exactly said to the Football Associations is not clear. In a press release, it did point out the obligation to wear the designated armband but did not mention any sanction. Apparently, FIFA did so towards the federations. Possibly invoking Article 3.2 of the FIFA Equipment Regulations, which stipulates that decisions made by FIFA in implementing these regulations are binding. With no possibility of appeal. 

However, issuing a yellow card is not a decision of FIFA but of the referee, based on the rules of the game and not the FIFA regulations. The actions of the referee on the field are thus not regulated by the FIFA. Thus, FIFA cannot change the laws of the game such adding a breach of their Equipment Regulations as basis for an on-field yellow card.

Then, why this decision. Well, it worked. What is clear is that FIFA waited until just before the World Cup to make the announcement that wearing the OneLove armband would lead to a yellow card, leaving little to no time for legal scrutiny by the Football Associations. Therefore, the federations cannot be blamed so much for not pursuing the OneLove armband. 

Despite no (clear) rule on the sanction of a yellow card referees may still issue a yellow card for wearing the OneLove armband. They also had  little time to no time to sort things out legally (or they feel pressure to issue the yellow card). And after all, a reassessment of a yellow card given by a referee, even if it is obviously unjustified, cannot be reviewed (art. 9 FIFA Disciplinary Code).

It would have been interesting if the various federations had FIFA’s decision reviewed by the CAS. Germany had intended to bring this action, but still refrained from doing so. Whether such a move to the CAS would have been possible, I will come back to this in another blog. So keep an eye on this blog.

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