Armband protest reversal at FIFA World Cup: Get praise for joining the fight – with no intention of taking a punch

Everyone has those friends who think saying you should get together is as good as getting together. These are the people who don’t make plans. They make plans to make plans, and those plans never seem to work out.

The people who do this are often lovely, but they’re also useless.

On Monday, Europe’s football powers proved themselves as feckless as that forever-cancelling friend. They started a fight they evidently had no intention of fighting. They just wanted to get a photo so that everyone could see them in their boxing trunks.

Months ago, the qualifying nations from Europe promised to do something for LGBTQ+ representation in the World Cup. They settled on each captain wearing a rainbow armband instead of the approved item.

As gestures go, it wasn’t much. More of a wink than a raised fist. But they seemed to think it was really something. They could hardly shut up about it.

It should also be noted that this was their idea. The football bosses and teams came up with it themselves, and were anxious to take credit for it. England, Wales, Germany, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland spent the run-up to this thing standing in front of a morality mirror, basking in the reflected glow of their own goodness.

As recently as Sunday evening, they were redrawing their line in the sand. England captain Harry Kane was asked if he still intended to follow through with his protest, even if it cost him a yellow card for breaking FIFA equipment standards. Kane answered in the affirmative.

“I think a number of the European countries have spoken and we’ve made our position clear,” Kane said.

In other words – I know we’re 45 minutes late, but we’re on our way. Almost there. Traffic’s terrible. We’re just around the corner. Order us a drink.

On Monday afternoon, shortly before kickoff at England vs. Iran, the protest was called off. Apparently, everyone figured out that FIFA wasn’t kidding. They were really going to book captains.

“We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband,” the countries said in a joint statement. “However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play.”

In other words: We’re so embarrassed. I know we said we’d come over, but something’s come up. It’s the boss. He called and explained how I only make money off this thing if we’re in it. So, yeah, like, so sorry. But next time for sure! Hugs and kisses!

When the game did start, England briefly took a knee – a FIFA-tolerated gesture towards inclusion and anti-racism.

So the up-to-the-minute standard is that sanctioned protest is allowed. That’s worse than no protest at all. Protesting without threat of punishment is called complaining. I do it every time I drive. No one cares.

After a week spent talking about how this is the final straw and that the people are taking back the power, what have we learned in Qatar? That all the old rules still apply and that power’s doing just fine.

All that’s changed is that sports organizations have become more supple. They used to be in lockstep with the system. Now they’ve figured out to walk three feet in front of it. Close enough that if they start to wander, the system can reach out and pull them back into line.

“We can’t be involved in that now,” England coach Gareth Southgate said afterwards, putting a pin in the matter. “We have to be concentrated on performances.”

This way of doing things continues because it works. In response to the armband switch, a coalition of English LBGTQ+ fan groups lashed out at FIFA.

“FIFA are guilty of crushing the basic human rights to freedom of speech,” 3LionsPride said in a statement.

England & Co. are off the hook. They got to make a promise no one was telling them to make, yoink that promise at the last minute and still get credit for trying. It’s some fault.

This is why people in the entertainment business who have nothing to say have all started saying something. They’ll be praised for joining the fight despite having no intention of taking a punch.

This sort of gold-plated cynicism would have been more bemusing than anything else, had England not had to line up on Monday beside Iran.

Unlike England, the Iranian team isn’t going anywhere in this World Cup. They don’t have the horses.

The team’s job was to show up, try not to lose too badly and act as televised bulwark for the unsteady regime back home. Instead, they decided to do something.

As the Iranian national anthem played before the match, a camera panned down the line of Iranian starters. None of them sang. They stood there stock still and stony faced. This was widely interpreted as a signal of support to the Iranian resistance. Boos could be heard coming from the section of Iranian fans on hand.

No press releases were issued. Nobody alerted the media that it was coming. The Iranian players just saw something and, in their own small, unshowy way, did something. Considering that people are dying in Tehran, it isn’t much. But whatever awaits the Iranian players when they get home, it’s probably worse than a yellow card.

Everything that happened during the match was colored by its start. The English scored at will and preened. Up in the crowd, Qatar’s international promoter-in-chief, David Beckham, was on his feet for the goals. The Iranians had their moments, but England romped to a 6-2 football victory.

But in the full context of the occasion, the setting, the stakes and what it means to show up for your friends, Iran were the winner by some distance.

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