Former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said teams who focused on “competition” rather than “political demonstrations” performed better in the group stages of the World Cup.
Wenger, speaking as part of a media briefing for FIFA’s Technical Study Group in Qatar, appeared to be referring to the likes of Germany, which suffered a surprise exit from the tournament earlier this week.
“Going to the World Cup, you know you have to not lose the first game,” said Wenger, who has taken up a role as FIFA’s chief of global football development since stepping away from management, said on Sunday.
“Other teams who have experience, they have results in former tournaments like France, like England, like Brazil – they played well in the first game. And the teams as well who were mentally ready … [and] had the mindset to focus on competition and not on political demonstrations.”
Ahead of their opening game against Japan, Germany’s players covered their mouths with their hands as a protest against the threat from FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, to sanction players for wearing “OneLove” armbands.
Seven European nations, including Germany, were set to wear the armbands at the World Cup, but chose not to so as not to put players at risk of receiving yellow cards.
The armbands, which feature the outline of a heart striped in different colors, were intended to promote inclusion and display solidarity with people of different genders and sexual identities.
FIFA regulations state that team captains must wear armbands provided by the governing body, even though FIFA said it “supports all legitimate causes, such as ‘OneLove.’”
Germany, whose Interior Minister Nancy Faeser wore the armband while watching her country, failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup after a defeat against Japan, a draw against Spain and a win against Costa Rica.
Social media users were critical of Wenger drawing a correlation between teams protesting and underperforming on the pitch.
“Disgraceful comments by Wenger,” Craig Foster, a former Australian midfielder turned human rights activist, wrote on Twitter. “Human rights aren’t politics, Arsene,” Foster added, “& values shouldn’t be for sale.”
Others highlighted inconsistencies in Wenger’s comments, pointing out that Australia’s players publicly criticized Qatar’s human rights record ahead of the World Cup before proceeding to defy expectations on the pitch and qualify for the knockout stages.
CNN has contacted FIFA for comment regarding Wenger’s remarks and to try and obtain a comment from the Frenchman.
In a series of tweets explaining its mouth-covering protest, Germany’s Football Federation said: “Human rights are non-negotiable … Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice.”
Qatar, a country where sex between men is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison, has come under criticism for its stance on LGBTQ rights ahead of and during the World Cup.
However, the country has insisted that “everyone is welcome” at the tournament, adding in a recent statement to CNN that “our track record has shown that we have warmly welcomed all people regardless of background.”