MONTREAL – When Mukhbir Singh’s soccer team won the league championship this past winter, he was on the sidelines — barred from the pitch last November because he wears a turban.
Singh, a 25-year-old Montrealer, has been coaching instead of playing for his recreational league team ever since.
“My teammates are very supportive and wanted me to be a part of the team anyway,” he said.
Singh will have to wait at least a little while longer to get back on the field.
The Quebec Soccer Federation announced Sunday its board of directors has decided to keep a ban on turbans.
Quebec referees began cracking down on turbans, patkas and keskis — the religious headgear worn by Sikh men and boys — in the last year.
The latest move comes despite a directive from the Canadian Soccer Association in April calling for provincial associations to allow them.
In a statement Sunday, the Quebec federation cited safety concerns and said its decision to keep the ban is in line with the international soccer organization FIFA.
The federation said it would lift the ban immediately if FIFA does.
For now, Quebec referees who don’t apply the rule could face penalties of their own.
Balpreet Singh, a spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said Quebec is the only province where Sikh soccer players have faced problems because they wear a turban.
Singh argues FIFA’s position on turbans and other headwear is beside the point.
He said FIFA is responsible for major international tournaments, while the Quebec Soccer Federation oversees recreational leagues.
“We’re talking about kids having fun,” Singh said. The organization is exploring its options and is considering taking legal action, he said.
It’s not first time religious headgear on the soccer field has been the source of controversy in the province.
Quebec, which has been the site of heated debate over “reasonable accommodation” of minorities, banned a teen in 2011 from working as a soccer referee while wearing a hijab.
The statement from the Quebec Soccer Federation noted that girls are now permitted to wear headscarves on the field in Quebec, following a directive from FIFA in 2012.
Mukhbir Singh, who is also a member of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said he’s optimistic he’ll eventually be able to return to the pitch. He said he’s more concerned about how the ruling will impact young Sikhs.
“If this gets extended to three or four years, to be honest I’m worried about the long-term effects this will have on the children,” he said, estimating that 100 and 200 soccer players are affected by the ruling.
“I’m worried what they’ll make of their own Sikh identity after facing these types of issues.”