England have opened their World Cup campaign in Qatar by taking the knee in a tournament which has been largely overshadowed by non-sporting issues, including criticism of the host nation over human rights abuses and allegations of FIFA corruption.
The Three Lions made the gesture against racism and inequality – just hours after rowing back on a decision to wear the OneLove armband during matches to promote diversity and inclusion because of the threat of the captain being booked.
Iran‘s players chose not to sing the country’s national anthem before kick-off, in an apparent show of support for protesters back home.
Widespread demonstrations have followed the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police in September after being detained for alleged violations of the country’s strict dress code.
Iranian state television did not show footage of the players lined up for the start of the match.
Off the pitch, hundreds of fans trying to get into the Khalifa International Stadium were faced with delays after they found their ticket app only started working minutes before they reached the front of the queue.
Fans said their tickets suddenly disappeared off the app, leaving them unable to get into the game.
FIFA said it was “working on solving the issue” and urged fans unable to access their tickets on their phones to check their emails “for further instructions”.
One England fan said they should have “just used paper tickets” and criticised the organisation of the entry.
“We are waiting in line and the game’s about to kick-off. I won’t use any profanity… but spewing, absolutely spewing,” said another fan, who had travelled from Australia to the game.
Harry Kane was due to wear the multicoloured OneLove armband during the side’s opening game, and Wales captain Gareth Bale the same armband promoting inclusivity when he leads his team out against the USA later at Al Rayyan Stadium.
However, facing the threat of an instant yellow card, a joint statement from seven European nations – including England and Wales – who had signed up to the OneLove campaign, earlier confirmed the armbands will no longer be worn.
They said while they were “frustrated by the FIFA decision”, they could not put their players “in a position where they could face sporting sanctions”.
A suspension is issued after two bookings in this tournament, meaning had either player been booked ahead of kick-off, they would already be walking a tightrope.
Kane instead wore FIFA’s No Discrimination armband as England started their campaign against Iran.
The teams said they were prepared to “pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations” but “cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play”.
The statement added: “We are very frustrated by the FIFA decision which we believe is unprecedented – we wrote to FIFA in September informing them of our wish to wear the OneLove armband to actively support inclusion in football, and had no response.”
Qatar has faced an onslaught of criticism since being chosen as the host nation, with the country’s poor human rights record and ban on same-sex relationships proving particularly problematic.
In Qatar, participating in same-sex sexual activity can be punished with up to seven years in prison, or even the death penalty.
The safety of migrant workers and the logistics of holding a football tournament in desert heat has also attracted negative attention.
The decision is another late one, following on from FIFA’s U-turn on alcohol sales – banning beer at the tournament’s eight stadiums, with the exception of those in corporate hospitality at venues.
The sale of alcohol is strictly controlled in Qatar, and is only allowed in the Muslim nation within hotel bars and restaurants away from street view.
The Football Supporters’ Association for fans in England and Wales, then criticised the decision, warning: “If they can change their minds on this at a moment’s notice, with no explanation, supporters will have understandable concerns about whether they will fulfil other promises relating to accommodation, transport or cultural issues.”
Today, the group issued a scathing response to the decision on armbands, saying: “We feel betrayed.
“Today we feel contempt for an organisation that has shown its true values by giving the yellow card to players and the red card to tolerance.
“Never again should a World Cup be handed out solely on the basis of money and infrastructure. No country which falls short on LGBT+ rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights or any other universal human right should be given the honour of hosting a World Cup.”