Rainbow Armbands Aren't Allowed at the World Cup, but Athletes Are Still Showing Pride

About a month ahead of the start of the 2023 Women's World Cup, FIFA unveiled a set of eight sanctioned armbands designed for players to wear during the tournament. The armbands highlight a range of social causes. Notably missing, however, was one that directly supports the LGBTQ+ community. The "Unite For Inclusion" band gets the closest, with a logo that shows the same colors as the One Love band — red, black, green, pink, yellow, and blue — which caused significant controversy during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (but more on that in a second).

The tournament is currently underway, nearing the end of the group stage, and despite not being able to wear overtly rainbow armbands, athletes are still finding ways to show their pride or support for the community. For example, during a match against Argentina on July 28, South Africa's forward Thembi Kgatlana debuted a new rainbow undercut hairstyle, and on July 30, New Zealand's Ali Riley sported a manicure with the colors of the trans pride flag on one hand and the colors of the rainbow pride flag on the other. It's not just the players who are making a point: during the July 22 game between England and Haiti at Brisbane Suncorp Stadium in Australia, the stadium was decorated with a bright rainbow light display, as reported by Them.

There are at least 96 out LGBTQ+ athletes playing in this year's women's World Cup, according to Outsports, representing 22 teams and making up more than 13 percent of all the athletes competing. So how did FIFA decide which armbands would be approved in the first place?

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 28: Thembi Kgatlana (2nd L) of South Africa celebrates with teammate Sibulele Holweni (1st L) after scoring her team's second goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group G match between Argentina a
Getty | Matthew Lewis - FIFA; Getty / Lars Baron / Staff; Catherine Ivill - UEFA

The designs and social causes for the tournament's 2023 approved armbands were chosen after consulting with 32 participating teams, players, and United Nations agencies, according to FIFA's statement. "It's not just about what happens on the pitch. We are committed to using football's power as a force for good and leveraging our partnerships with United Nations agencies to achieve our goals," said FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura in the statement. "United, we can make a difference."

The decision came on the heels of the One Love controversy during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. At the time, eight European captains were set to wear rainbow-colored armbands in a stance against discrimination. Many viewed the move as a particularly pointed statement toward Qatar, a country that's faced continued scrutiny over human rights concerns, the treatment of migrant laborers, and the criminalization of homosexuality. Teams were wary of offending their host country, so they decided to wear armbands distinctive from, but still related to, the Pride flag: a white band with a multicolored heart and the words "One Love," as The New York Times reported.

But both the inclusive gesture and more subtle design for 2022 were met with severe backlash from FIFA. Players were threatened with punishment for wearing the armbands, and FIFA unveiled a last-minute approved (and highly sanitized) set of armbands with slogans like "Save the Planet" and "Education For All." Teams asked their captains not to wear the armbands, and the campaign collapsed under pressure. But some players from Germany covered their mouths in photos to protest FIFA's stance, and several politicians took up the mantle as well. Denmark's former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt wore a dress with rainbow sleeves in a meeting with FIFA's president.

FIFA's choice to approve the "Unite for Inclusion" armband for the 2023 women's tournament may seem like a big win for players and fans who want teams to take a stance on social issues, but underlying this announcement is FIFA's non-commitment to addressing the One Love controversy head-on — or taking a proud stance in support of the LGBTQ+ community. The One Love armbands are still, in effect, banned, and the announcement sweeps the Qatar-era strong-arming under the rug.

But it's clear from the athletes' gestures this year that they're not settling for the lack of representation. As one Twitter user wrote, "banning rainbow arm bands from the Women's World Cup is like banning fish from the sea." And as athletes like Kgatlana and Riley are demonstrating, you can stop the use of rainbow armbands, but you can't stop LGBTQ+ pride and allyship.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 06: Leah Williamson of England during the Women´s Finalissima 2023 match between England and Brazil at Wembley Stadium on April 06, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)
Getty | Matthew Lewis - FIFA; Getty / Lars Baron / Staff; Catherine Ivill - UEFA

— Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo