International football: Fifa looks to punish players who protest during anthem

Right now, players who take the knee during the national anthem is proving so divisive it’s putting pressure on Fifa to bring forward its decision on imposing sanctions.

Three of the four British-based World Cup qualifying teams are currently boycotting the anthem, with the inclusion of Honduras and Saudi Arabia in the qualifiers that have already happened casting an all-round cloud over the issue.

What has happened?

Although protests have been taking place in American football for quite some time, the past 12 months have seen an increase in the frequency and the vagueness of the issues that are being raised.

Riots against police brutality and racial disparity in the criminal justice system have been fuelling the tension, with Colin Kaepernick’s 2014 decision to kneel at his team’s pre-season match and raise his right fist still gaining international attention.

The movements gained momentum further after Donald Trump’s remarks around the home-opening NFL game on 1 September.

Professional athletes have found a forum to share their message and popular support for their actions has grown, so much so that even Fifa President Gianni Infantino has expressed interest in meeting players to talk about the issue.

What is the controversy over?

The debate around NFL players taking a knee is complex, largely related to the relative culture and political affiliations of each country.

As the news hasn’t fully rolled through England yet, even those in the team with a history of pro-football demonstrations have so far refrained from being silent when the anthem is played.

Matt Ritchie (centre) and Sean Scannell (second from right) refuse to stand for the anthem

Winger Matt Ritchie was being booed by Newcastle fans earlier this month, after he remained on the terraces during the anthem before their game against Leicester City.

The England and Wales Under-21 pair of captain Kayden Jackson and Michael Olumide did not stand for the national anthem before their international match against Serbia.

Other top teams in England, such as Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City, all insist they support their players’ right to protest while also protecting the integrity of the anthem.

However, unlike members of FIFA’s rule-making council, clubs cannot legally control their players in this instance.

Players at the top club sides and at the national teams don’t feel that their protest is going unnoticed by the wider sporting public. As a result, FIFA has taken action, which could be used as a precedent for subsequent cases.

According to Sky Sports News HQ, currently no criminal charges are being brought against the players or the teams who choose not to support the anthem, but that could change.

Refusing to stand and kneeling during an anthem is against the rulebook, and the chance of any punishment for those who choose to take the knee has increased significantly.

International law professor Michael McCormack believes “further action may well be taken in the future”.

What impact is it having on the squad?

While it’s true that players have made varying opinions on the matter, it seems unlikely that the World Cup qualifiers have affected how they perform in the games themselves.

Matt Ritchie of Newcastle United refused to stand for the anthem

When Fifa decided to bring forward a decision on punishments, one report suggested that they would impose fines and warnings on member countries who had issues with their players and/or fans failing to stand for the anthem.

Where the FIFA decision will have an impact on England and Wales, however, is as the qualifying campaign for the World Cup in 2022 is already underway.

A repeat of the protests during Sunday’s game, which is between England and Slovakia, would undoubtedly lead to a backlash and players being added to a list of those who refused to stand.

In 2014, when black England players – namely Raheem Sterling and Chris Smalling – refused to stand for the anthem, it led to the England team’s PR team having to go on record to defend the actions of the players.

And if they were shown failing to respect the flag, it would be clear that the national team’s position was not in lockstep with their own supporters.

What happens now?

One of the main sticking points in the dispute is that players who choose not to stand and show respect may potentially be offered lower pay for their international commitments.

Because of this, FIFA’s decision to bring forward the impending sanctions, and the fact that it has now included the possibility of retrospective punishment, could be used to bring these issues to a head.

But, given Fifa’s initial decisions, it is unlikely that there will be a widespread banning of the protests.

A FIFA statement said the World Cup qualifying Group A clash between England and Slovakia would take place as scheduled, regardless of whether or not the players took a knee during the anthem.

It added: “Fifa can’t impose its will on third parties.”

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