MONTREAL – The Beautiful Game shed an ugly debate on Saturday as the Quebec Soccer Federation ended its internationally criticized turban ban and the Canadian Soccer Association welcomed it back into the fold.
The news was greeted with cheers by a mostly Sikh crowd at a solidarity soccer game organized in a Montreal suburb, where people of all ages and skills charged onto the pitch wearing turbans.
“I’m excited and I’m proud as a Quebecer that the decision has come to allow the kids to get back on the field,” said Amar Magon, one of the organizers of the game.
The Quebec Soccer Federation announced the end of its ban Saturday morning, saying it was relieved to receive clear instructions from FIFA on what has become a contentious issue.
“It has been our intention from the onset to get a confirmation that the FIFA allowed wearing of turbans, patkas or keskis,” said Brigitte Frot, the Quebec federation’s executive director.
“We are very happy that the FIFA has responded to our request and by the same token dispelled the ambiguities created by a lack of clarification.”
The ban prompted the Canadian Soccer Association to suspend the Quebec Soccer Federation June 10.
Frot said her organization has sent a letter to the national body informing it the ban has been lifted, thus meeting the conditions that would end the suspension.
The Canadian association quickly confirmed the suspension was over, adding it was “pleased that both organizations could come to a timely resolution on this important matter.”
“As the governing body of soccer in Canada we will continue to take all necessary measures to ensure the integrity of our game, our membership, and players. Our commitment to the growth of our game in a unified fashion will not waiver,” the association’s president, Victor Montagliani, said in a statement.
The Quebec organization had cited safety issues for its controversial move as well as the fact the turbans were not endorsed by FIFA.
The provincial federation may have one more hurdle, however. The head of the World Sikh Organization of Canada wants to see registration opened up again to accommodate kids who missed signing up because of the ban.
“It’s very simple,” said Prem Vinning, the Sikh organization’s president. “Don’t penalize these children for another year. It’s not acceptable, there’s no need for that.”
It was not immediately clear what the federation would do about registration.
The ban had become a political football. The Parti Quebecois government supported the federation’s position, while many federal politicians slammed it as exclusionary.
The ban drew international media attention, including coverage in the European press and the New York Times. It came as identity politics have become a hot-button issue in the province.
Quebec had earlier gotten embarrassing international attention through the strict enforcement of its language laws when an overzealous government inspector deemed that a Montreal Italian restaurant had too much Italian on its menu.
The federation “unwillingly” found itself the focus of a polarizing debate, Frot said in a statement Saturday.
“Our intervention was solely from a technical point of view and had absolutely nothing to do with religious matters or political views,” she said in defending the federation’s actions.
“We sometimes had difficulty communicating our intentions over the last few days. If we have offended or appalled some people, please know that it was not intentional nor voluntary and we are deeply sorry.”
Vinning said he didn’t foresee future problems and expected the young, turban-wearing soccer players to be embraced by the province.
“We Canadians, we come together and we forget our problems,” said Vinning, who flew in from Vancouver for the solidarity event.
“I urge the premier of this great province to reach out to these children and bring all Quebecers together regardless of race, religion, creed, colour or their background. We are stronger because of our differences.”
He reminded Premier Pauline Marois that the children are her citizens.
“They’re all Quebecers.”
He said he was stunned when Marois supported the ban.
“For the premier of a province to weigh in like that, I was shocked. Canadians across this great country of ours were shocked, I could tell by the emails and the phone calls I got. The international community was shocked. The last place they thought a statement like that would be made was in Canada.”
Georges Laraque, a former Montreal Canadiens player and current deputy leader of the federal Green party, also termed the whole controversy regrettable, calling the ban “stupid.”
“What are we saying to the world when we do a ruling like this?” he said as he took a break from playing in the soccer event. “It’s an embarrassment.”
Baltej Singh Dhillon, who was the first turbaned member of the RCMP, also flew in from British Columbia for the event and said the country has grown since he faced the outcry over changing the traditional Mountie uniform to allow the headgear in 1990.
He said the reaction to the Quebec ban shows Canada is more accepting, understanding and knowledgeable.
“The community and Canada is 22 years more mature,” he said. “As neighbours, I think this was a great example of where we stood up for each other when our individual rights were being challenged.”
He didn’t fear any residual effects.
“Families are supposed to have arguments,” he said. “But the end result of that is that we come to a resolution, which we have. What shouldn’t change is that we’re still family.”
Politics and squabbles were the furthest thing from the mind of six-year-old Viraj Singh, who sported a white turban as he charged around the soccer pitch.
He gave an enthusiastic and affirmative nod of his head when he was asked if he was glad he could wear his turban while playing.
“I like playing with my friends and I like playing soccer,” he said. “It’s fun.”