FIFA threatened England with 'unlimited' sanctions over OneLove armbands, says FA chief

FA CEO Mark Bullingham tells ITV Sport his claims that England was backed into a corner at the last minute over anti-discrimination armbands

England was threatened with "unlimited" disciplinary action if players wore anti-discrimination armbands two hours before their opening World Cup match, the FA's CEO says.

FIFA officials turned up at the team's hotel and said anyone wearing the OneLove armbands would receive a yellow card and potentially be banned from matches, said Mark Bullingham.

It isn't clear whether threats of "unlimited" sanctions could also have included points deductions for the Three Lions.

Mr Bullingham told ITV Sport how the FA had been clear of England's intentions to wear the armbands since September and had been in talks with FIFA about it since.

As far as it was aware, England would face a fine due to FIFA's ban on political slogans on kits, but the team was prepared to take the hit.

England were initially expecting to be fined for the armbands but were willing to pay. Credit: PA

But Mr Bullingham said the decision to impose further punishments is "completely unprecedented" and said he was "massively frustrated" by FIFA's "very last minute" decision.

"Its not the way that anyone should work doing things on the day of the game, even the action itself is completely unprecedented for a kit regulation.

"There have been kit breaches in the past - we’ve done that with poppies and we had an understanding we would wear the poppies and pay the fine, and we felt that this was a very similar situation to that and should be dealt with in the same way.

"All our rules experts felt the same as well. The way they acted was completely unprecedented."

The captains of seven European nations had vowed to wear armbands as part of the OneLove campaign, which promotes inclusion and diversity. 

Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, which has also been criticised for its treatment of low-paid migrant workers and women and its suppression of free speech.

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After teams U-turned on their stance to wear the heart-shaped, multicoloured logo, the German FA claimed "extreme blackmail" and "massive sanctions" forced England to back down.

"Clearly we felt put in a completely invidious position - it was a horrible position - we wanted to wear this armband we were then suddenly faced with a scenario where our players might not be able to play a part in the tournament and we felt we couldn’t put them in that position," Mr Bullingham said.

"We had a really short window of time to make the decision and that’s where we felt we had to go."

It comes after FIFA president Gianni Infantino claimed that Western nations had no right to attack Qatar for its record on discrimination due to past atrocities of European nations.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino claims "the FIFA name is the only global, original title." Credit: PA

In a bizarre diatribe, he tried to say he could understand the experience of migrant workers and LGBT+ people in Qatar because of his upbringing as the son of Italian immigrants in Switzerland.

He said: “Today I feel Qatari, today I feel Arabic, today I feel African, today I feel gay, today I feel disabled, today I feel [like] a migrant worker.”

“Of course I am not Qatari, I am not an Arab, I am not African, I am not gay, I am not disabled. But I feel like it, because I know what it means to be discriminated [against], to be bullied, as a foreigner in a foreign country. As a child I was bullied – because I had red hair and freckles, plus I was Italian, so imagine.”

Mr Infantino is currently up for re-election, and is expected to stay in the role by default as he is the only candidate.

Mr Bullingham said all the FA can do is try to "restrict his mandate" to ensure FIFA's next three year plan is closer aligned to England's values.

"We’ve raised with him for example that we would like stronger human rights to be embedded within the bids for future tournaments.

"We shouldn’t be talking about these things on the eve of a tournament. There should be absolute clarity when countries bid for tournaments that there’s a basic level of human rights expected."

Mr Bullingham added that there should be a "basic level of human rights" as part of any bidding criteria to host the tournament.

He added: "That's absolutely part of the discussion that has to be had, and that has to be had at the point that countries bid for the World Cup not a discussion that happens in the build up to it."

FIFA says it is confident all necessary measures will be in place for LGBT+ fans to enjoy the tournament in a welcoming and safe environment.

It says FIFA is an inclusive organisation that wants to put football to the benefit of society by supporting good and legitimate causes, but it has to be done within the framework of the competition regulations which are known to everyone.