The chief executive of Football Australia has told the Observer that he is “pretty confident and optimistic” players will be allowed to wear rainbow armbands at the Women’s World Cup, after holding talks with Fifa. In a highly significant development, James Johnson said there had been “meaningful dialogue” between the hosts and football’s governing body and that it was likely to lead to players having greater ability to express themselves.
In an exclusive interview, Johnson also revealed that discussions had taken place over permitting Indigenous First Nation flags to be flown inside stadiums at July and August’s competition in Australia and New Zealand, saying it was an important issue for his country and its team.
“We’ve had very good dialogue with Fifa and it’s meaningful,” said Johnson. “They are not paying lip service to this. We’re in the middle of that process and we’re pretty confident and optimistic that we’ll end up in a good place: a place where players have the ability to express themselves in certain areas, which keeps the players happy, it keeps the host nation happy, and also Fifa happy as well. So I do think there’ll be a resolution ahead of the Women’s World Cup.”
Johnson said that part of the discussions included plans to allow players to wear armbands to represent certain issues. “So if we’re talking about Australian players, it’s obviously LGBTQ+ and Indigenous rights, First Nation rights, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the players all around the world,” he said. “But I think the players will be able to wear armbands around certain issues that they wish to express themselves on.”
Asked directly whether he expected to see players wearing rainbow armbands at the tournament, he replied: “I think there will be, yes.”
Johnson said the co-hosts and Fifa were keen to learn from the controversy that marred the men’s tournament in Qatar, where six European countries – including England – abandoned plans to wear the OneLove anti-discrimination armband after being told their captains would be booked if they did so. That was because under Fifa rules, team equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images, and the captain of each team “must wear the captain’s armband provided by Fifa”.
Those rules led to widespread discontent, with Germany’s players covering their mouths with their hands before their opening game against Japan to suggest they had been gagged.
Johnson indicated that Football Australia and football’s governing body were both looking to find ways “to ensure that there is some flexibility with how the competition regulations are executed” and “what exceptions could be made”.
“One of the key learnings for us as a host with the Qatar World Cup was seeing how players wanted to use that platform to push issues that were important to them,” he said. “That came through very strongly. And in the case of Qatar, the competition rules were at odds with that desire of the players. So we’re cognisant of that.
“We’re talking to our players about what issues they might want to express themselves on during the Women’s World Cup. Australia and New Zealand are countries where inclusion is really part of our DNA. And we want to ensure that, in a competition held in our countries, that value is reflective of what the tournament stands for.”
Johnson refused to be drawn on what form of words the armbands might contain, or whether the controversial OneLove slogan might be used, saying it was too early to say. However he added: “I think there’ll be other initiatives that will be exempt. One might be the hanging of an Indigenous flag in Australia, which is an issue that is important to our players and us as an organisation. We are still trying to figure out the details, but it’s a broader conversation than just the armbands.”
Johnson also revealed that he was hopeful that a TV blackout of the Women’s World Cup in Europe would be averted but said that Fifa president Gianni Infantino was right to say that bids from the big five countries – Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and France – were too low. “We understand some of the frustrations that Fifa is having, because there is a phenomenal growth in women’s football and for this tournament with broadcast numbers,” he said. “And our view is that the broadcast deals do need to reflect that growth.
“But a resolution is in everyone’s interest. And ultimately if there is more investment through broadcast deals, the good news is that it goes back into the women’s game and helps us continue to develop it.”
Adblock test (Why?)