FIFA Issues Statement Permitting Quebec Soccer Players to Wear Turbans

Last week, FIFA issued a statement permitting male soccer players to wear religious headgear during games and addressing the Quebec Soccer Federation’s (the “QSF”) decision to prohibit players from wearing turbans.  In its June 14 letter, the International Football Association Board (the “IFAB”) stated that after communicating with the Canadian Soccer Association (the “CSA”) regarding Law 4 of the FIFA Laws of the Game (The Players’ Equipment), IFAB was applying the conditions set forth in a FIFA circular from October 2012 to allow male players to wear turbans.


(Courtesy of Fédération Internationale de Football Association.)

The IFAB sent the letter to the CSA and issued its statement on FIFA’s website in response to the QSF’s official decision in early June to prohibit men from wearing turbans or other similar religious headgear during official matches.  The ban sparked substantial opposition and allegations that the QSF was discriminating against males that wore turbans and, in particular, Sikhs.  The CSA, in turn, suspended the QSF.

The June 14 IFAB letter provisionally permits male players to wear “head covers” that (1) are the same color as the player’s jersey; (2) are “in keeping with the professional appearance of the player’s equipment”; (3) are not attached to the player’s jersey; and (4) do “not pose any danger to the player wearing it or any other player (e.g., opening/closing mechanism around neck).”  The letter states that the CSA may allow players to wear such headgear “in all areas and on all levels of the Canadian football community.”  The head covers issue will be revisited during the IFAB’s meetings in October 2013, before a final decision is made at FIFA’s Annual General Meeting in March 2014.  For the time being, male players are permitted to wear religious headgear during games as long as the headgear satisfies the conditions of the IFAB letter.

The IFAB’s quick response to the QSF’s ban on turbans and other Sikh religious headgear like patkas and keskis likely foreshadows a permanent rule permitting male players to wear religious headgear during official matches.  It also suggests that the IFAB believed that a quick, decisive approach to a surprising and controversial decision by the QSF was necessary.

According to an initial report by the New York Times, Brigitte Frot, director general of the QSF, cited safety as the underlying reason for the ban of turbans.  At first glance, the justification seems reasonable. Law 4 of the FIFA Laws of the Game, which addresses “The Players’ Equipment,” provides that “[a] player must not use equipment or anything that is dangerous to himself or another player (including any kind of jewellery).”  And while a turban’s threat to the safety of a player wearing it or to other players is questionable, the QSF’s stated justification for the ban is at least grounded in the FIFA Laws of the Game.  The disconcerting aspect of the QSF’s decision, however, is that FIFA’s recent interpretations of Law 4 by FIFA would not appear to support the unqualified ban on turbans and the QSF’s public statements on the matter raise concerns about how the proposed ban was dealt with.

In a FIFA release from October 25, 2012 (FIFA Circular No. 1322), FIFA addressed the issue of female players who wear hijabs, or headscarves, during games.  FIFA authorized a “trial phase” permitting women to wear hijabs if they (1) are the same color as the player’s jersey; (2) are “in keeping with the professional appearance of the player’s equipment”; (3) are not attached to the jersey; (4) do not pose any danger to the player wearing the headscarf or to any other player; and (5) are worn by female players. FIFA stated that any headscarf meeting the criteria would be acceptable, and went so far as to provide examples (if you are curious, FIFA referenced and  FIFA qualified its decision by stating that a final conclusion on the headscarf “experiment” would be reached when FIFA convenes in March 2014 to address Amendments to the FIFA Laws of the Game.

FIFA’s October 2012 letter provided that the trial phase applied to headscarves worn by women, so it is possible that the QSF was abiding by the strictest interpretation of the rules, concluding that the IFAB’s decision applied to headgear worn by women only.  According to the New York Times article, Frot suggested that the distinction came down to the fact that FIFA conducted safety studies on hijabs before provisionally authorizing them, but had yet to do so for turbans: “We have an obligation as a federation to put player safety first. . . . FIFA has done this work for the hijab and, when they’ve done it for the turban, I have no doubt that FIFA will put out a directive authorizing it and we’ll be happy to follow suit.”  The IFAB acted quickly in its June 14 letter to dispel that distinction, and permit the wearing of turbans by male players without first conducting safety studies.  But hindsight is 20/20, and while many observers were quick to challenge the QSF’s ban on turbans when it occurred, it wasn’t necessarily foreseeable that the IFAB would be so quick and decisive in providing opposing guidance.

The QSF’s decision, however, remains questionable because of its approach to the problem.  Instead of seeking FIFA or IFAB guidance on turbans prior to implementing the ban, the QSF issued an unqualified prohibition on turbans and then claimed that it would change its mind if FIFA later issued a directive permitting them.  Was the QSF’s tact lazy?  Perhaps.  Was it deliberately discriminatory against Sikhs, as suggested by many opponents of the ban?  It would be tough to conceive of such public discrimination by a soccer federation, but it likely depends on the perspective of the individual.  It doesn’t help the QSF’s position that Frot was fairly insensitive when asked what she would say to a 5-year old boy in a turban who attempts to register to play soccer in the QSF:

They can play in their backyard, but not with official referees, not in the official rules of soccer.  They have no choice.

Fortunately for many soccer players in Quebec, the IFAB and FIFA disagreed and quickly intervened.  And while the QSF has now lifted the ban on turbans, questions as to its handling of the ban (and perhaps its motivations) will persist.

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