DOHA, Qatar (AP) – America’s top diplomat on Tuesday criticized a decision by FIFA to threaten players at the World Cup with yellow cards if they wear bracelets supporting inclusion and diversity.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference alongside his Qatari counterpart that it is “always concerning… when we see restrictions on freedom of expression”.
“This is particularly the case when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” Blinken said at Doha’s Diplomatic Club. “And in my opinion, at least nobody on a football field should be forced to choose between supporting those values and playing for their team.”
Just hours before the first players wearing the armbands in support of the One Love campaign were due to take the field on Monday, the Football Association warned they would see yellow cards immediately – two of which result in the elimination of a player from that game and also from the next.
No player wore the “One Love” armbands on Monday, although seven European teams announced they would wear them ahead of the tournament.
England’s Harry Kane wore a FIFA-approved ‘No Discrimination’ armband, which was offered as a compromise in the match against Iran. FIFA has attempted to counter the Europeans’ campaign with their own armbands with more generic slogans, endorsed by some United Nations agencies.
When FIFA was asked to respond to Blinken’s comments, it referred to an earlier statement about allowing the “no discrimination” armbands at the tournament as part of a compromise it was trying to reach with football governing bodies.
Blinken arrived in Qatar on Monday, where he was attending a World Cup-related youth football programme. He later watched USA’s game against Wales on Monday night.
While openly criticizing FIFA, Blinken adopted a more moderate tone towards Qatar. This high-energy Middle Eastern nation was criticized ahead of the tournament for its treatment of migrant workers and the criminalization of gay and lesbian sex.
“We know that without workers, including many migrant workers, this World Cup simply would not have been possible,” said Blinken. “Qatar has made significant progress on its labor laws in recent years to expand workers’ rights.”
However, he added, “Real work remains on these issues, and the United States will continue to work with Qatar to strengthen labor and human rights more broadly long after the World Cup is over.”
Blinken spoke alongside Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani at the press conference. When asked by a Qatari-based journalist about the “media attacks” on his country, Sheikh Mohammed rebuffed them.
“As for the reforms of the state of Qatar, I think there were some sides that didn’t take this into account and relied on preconceived notions,” he said. “Of course we can’t change the minds of those who just want to attack us or distort our image.”
Blinken’s visit comes as part of a strategic dialogue with Qatar, which also hosts some 8,000 American troops at its massive Al-Udeid Air Base, which serves as the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command. The base was a key hub in America’s chaotic 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan and the evacuation of Afghan civilians.
A major topic of discussion is Iran. Non-proliferation experts say Iran now has enough uranium, enriched up to 60% — a short step from weapons-grade grade — to recycle it into fuel for a nuclear weapon if it chooses to do so.
Tehran insists its program is peaceful, though it has expanded it drastically since Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers collapsed.
Meanwhile, Iran has been rocked by months of protests after a 22-year-old woman was arrested in custody by the country’s vice squad on September 16.
At least 434 people have died as a result of crackdown by authorities and violence related to the demonstrations, according to human rights activists in Iran, a group that monitors the protests. Iran also plays in the World Cup and meets the USA on November 29th.
“The world is rightly focused on what is happening in Iran,” Blinken said. “The protests that have erupted since the assassination of Mahsa Amini have shaken the world.”
Questioned about the recent US decision to shield Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Referring to the lawsuit against him over the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Blinken said the Biden administration will “just follow the law” to grant immunity to a head of state.
Blinken added there were no plans for the Crown Prince to visit the United States
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.