Why the KNVB’s rainbow armband became a tug-of-war

Photo: PrathSnap/Pexels

There’s nothing like an inclusivity campaign for bringing out the absolute worst in people. The Dutch football association, the KNVB, has cancelled the second weekend of its OneLove campaign after a backlash against two players who declined to take part in the first round. The captains of all 18 Eredivisie clubs were invited to wear an armband with a rainbow motif as an anti-discrimination gesture. Two captains who declined to take part, Orkun Kökçü of Feyenoord and Redouan El Yaakoubi of Excelsior, were subjected to a barrage of criticism on social media and on talk shows. With wearying predictability, the fact that both players are Muslims dominated the discussion.

Because the campaign was timed to coincide with national coming out day on October 11, it was widely seen as a gesture of support for the LGBTQIA+ community. Critics therefore seized on the two players’ refusal as proof of endemic homophobia in the Muslim community. The veteran actor Paul Haenen confronted former Dutch-Moroccan footballer Anouar Diba on the HLF8 talk show: ‘I’m glad that we’re clear about where homophobia comes from. It comes from you, it comes from a lot of Muslims and strict evangelicals. Homophobia is widespread, it needs to come to the fore.’ ‘Now we know where discrimination comes from,’ Diba retorted.

It’s worth taking a minute to examine the different ways the two players tackled the issue. Kökçü issued a personal statement explaining that while he understood the aims of the campaign and he ‘respected everyone regardless of religion, background or preference’, his faith meant he was ‘not the appropriate person to support it’. Vice-captain Gernot Trauner wore the armband instead. El Yaakoubi opted for a different armband marked ‘respect’, which he said was a ‘more powerful word’. He complained that ‘I feel like some themes are being imposed on us in football.’

Though Kökçü bore the brunt of the flak, perhaps because of the status of his club, I found El Yaakoubi’s approach more troubling: it was a bit of cheap whataboutism that disputed the validity of the campaign, whereas Kökçü simply delegated the responsibility to a team-mate. Tellingly, the criticism was milder for Ajax’s Serbian captain, Dusan Tadic, who covered his rainbow armband with his regular captain’s one for part of the match with Excelsior and later wore it upside-down. It was a point raised by Feyenoord’s coach, Arie Slot, who remarked that some captains’ choices ‘received far more attention’ than others.

‘A crutch for one group became a stick for beating another’

The episode threw up one of the prevailing conundrums of Dutch society: how can a country that led the world on gay rights still exhibit such troglodyte ignorance towards racial minorities? Part of the answer is that while great strides have been made in formalising emancipation, most famously the legalisation of same-sex marriage, in cultural terms much of the Netherlands remains a pretty conservative place. Muslims are expected to adopt a far higher standard of cultural tolerance than the Dutch ever demand of themselves. Something designed as a crutch to support one minority group instead became a stick with which to beat another.

There was almost no examination of the reasons why the armband, and national coming out day, existed in the first place: that in many Dutch communities, including but by no means limited to Muslim communities, homosexuality is still shrouded in shame and secrecy. The OneLove campaign should have been an opportunity to discuss, among other things, why in 2021 we are still waiting for the first male professional footballer in the Netherlands to come out as gay. ‘Homo’ is still one of the most common insults in Dutch playgrounds. Some of the strongest support for Kökçü came from Feyenoord’s ‘ultra’ fans, the RJK, who are also accused of burning down a gym belonging to Paul van Dorst, the founder of the Roze Kameraden, the club’s gay supporters’ group.

In the Bible belt, teachers have forced teenagers to come out to their parents and as recently as 2020, the education minister from the Christen Union (CU) party, Arie Slob, was defending religious schools that made parents sign covenants pledging to denounce homosexuality. Even when Slob backed down following a public outcry, his initial stance was depicted as a political misjudgment rather than evidence of the influence of an intolerant religious minority. As recently as 2014, civil servants were allowed to refuse to preside over same-sex marriage ceremonies on grounds of religious conscience. One group’s cherished religious freedom is another’s deep-seated cultural hostility and failure to integrate.

The KNVB’s decision not to re-run the OneLove campaign in November as planned is sad but inevitable. It expressed regret that ‘the emphasis was too much on who did and didn’t want to take part, whereas a statement is supposed to set people thinking.’ Commentators who had spent several days stoking Islamophobia now accused the footballing authorities, without a trace of irony, of capitulating to intolerant forces. As Kathrine van den Bogert and Mariecke van den Berg argued in the Volkskrant, the campaign had become a ‘lightning conductor’ that projected the residual homophobia in Dutch culture onto ‘two bicultural captains with a Muslim background’. The real question is why, despite its reputation for tolerance, the Netherlands remains a place where minorities take an unequal share of the blame for society’s wider problems.

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