Top US diplomat criticizes FIFA armband threat at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The top US diplomat on Tuesday criticized FIFA’s decision to threaten players at the World Cup with yellow cards if they wear armbands in support of inclusion and diversity.

Speaking alongside his Qatari counterpart at a press conference, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was “always concerning … when we see restrictions on freedom of expression”.

“It’s especially true when the expression is for diversity and for inclusion,” Blinken told the Doha Diplomatic Club. “And in my view, at least no one on a football field should be forced to choose between upholding these values ​​and playing for their team.”

Just hours before the first players to wear armbands in support of the ‘One Love’ campaign took to the pitch on Monday, football’s governing body warned yellow cards would be forthcoming – two of which lead to the expulsion of a player from that game and also from the next.

No players wore ‘One Love’ armbands on Monday, although seven European clubs said they planned to 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 Iran match. FIFA has tried to counter the Euro campaign with its own bracelets with more generic slogans supported by some UN agencies.

Asked to respond to Blinken’s comments, FIFA referred to an earlier statement about allowing “No Discrimination” bracelets at the tournament, as part of a compromise it has been trying to reach with football federations.

Blinken arrived in Qatar on Monday, where he visited a World Cup-related youth soccer programme. It later saw the United States draw with Wales on Monday night.

While openly critical of FIFA, Blinken has adopted a more measured tone with Qatar. This energetic 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,” Blinken said. “Qatar has made great strides in 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 rights and human rights more broadly long after the World Cup is over.”

Blinken spoke alongside Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani at the press conference. When questioned by a Qatari journalist about “media attacks” on his country, Sheikh Mohammed rejected them.

“As far as Qatar’s state reforms go, I think there have been some neighborhoods that haven’t considered it and have relied on preconceived notions,” he said. “Of course we cannot change the opinion of those who only want to attack us or distort our image”.

Blinken’s visit is part of a strategic dialogue with Qatar, which is also home to some 8,000 American troops at its massive Al-Udeid air base that serves as the forward headquarters of the US Army Central Command. The base was a key node in the chaotic 2021 American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the evacuation of Afghan civilians.

An important issue to discuss is Iran. Nonproliferation experts say Iran now has enough uranium enriched to 60 percent — a short step from military-grade levels — to reprocess into fuel for a nuclear weapon if it chooses to do so.

Tehran insists its program is peaceful, though it has drastically expanded it since the collapse of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Meanwhile, Iran is reeling from months of protests following the Sept. 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman arrested by the country’s morality police.

A crackdown by authorities and the violence surrounding the demonstrations have killed at least 434 people, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests. Iran is also playing in the World Cup and will face the United States on November 29.

“The world is rightly focused on what is happening inside Iran,” Blinken said. “The protests that have arisen after the killing of Mahsa Amini are something that has galvanized the world.”

Asked about recent US decision to protect Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman On the lawsuit against him over the killing of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, Blinken said the Biden administration would “just follow the law” in terms of granting immunity to a head of state.

Blinken added that there were no plans for a visit from the crown prince to the United States

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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