MONTREAL - Soccer's world body struck a blow against Quebec's turban ban Friday, saying such headwear is perfectly acceptable on the pitch for now.
The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) said in a statement it is temporarily authorizing the wearing of male head covers at all levels of Canadian soccer. It is effectively applying a 2012 ruling that allowed specially designed hijabs for women.
The statement outlines certain rules for allowing the male headwear on the pitch.
"(FIFA) authorizes the CSA to permit all players to wear head covers ... in all areas and on all levels of the Canadian football community," FIFA said.
FIFA's position came four days after the Canadian Soccer Association suspended Quebec's soccer federation because the provincial body banned Sikh headwear.
The move risked turning Quebec into a soccer pariah, with players in the province isolated from national and interprovincial competition.
The Quebec organization had cited safety issues for its decision and the fact the garments were not endorsed by FIFA.
FIFA responded that the head coverings are allowed — on a trial basis and just for the time being. The issue will be discussed in October by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which determines the rules of the game, and a final decision is expected in March 2014.
The Quebec Soccer Federation said Friday it welcomed the news "with enthusiasm and relief." It said it had been waiting for clear instructions from FIFA.
However, the Quebec body has not said exactly what it will do next.
It is to hold a news conference Saturday morning and issue a ruling with respect to the "lifting of the ban."
The impact of the spat has already been felt.
This weekend, at least 20 out-of-province teams are skipping a tournament in Montreal. Some players in Quebec leagues have also decided to wear turbans in protest of the ban.
That ban had the support of the Parti Quebecois government and some sovereigntists have even used the case as an argument for Quebec independence.
However, many federal politicians opposed the ban and applauded the CSA suspension — with the Conservatives and Liberals being the most forceful.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair had also written to FIFA, seeking clarification and expressing his hope children would be allowed to play.
In Ottawa, Sports Minister Bal Gosal said he was optimistic FIFA's statement could help end the stalemate.
"I am optimistic this development will help the CSA and the Quebec Soccer Federation pursue their discussions and resolve the current situation very soon, so all Canadians, especially the children, can get back on the field continue to play the game," Gosal said in a statement.
There are certain guidelines regarding the headgear. FIFA outlined the details in a letter to the Canadian Soccer Association, dated Thursday.
According to FIFA, the headcover must be the same colour as the jersey; must keep with the professional appearance of the player's equipment; and must not be attached to a jersey or pose any danger to the player wearing it.
The World Sikh Organization welcomed FIFA's declaration.
"It's been our position from the outset that the accommodation of the turban shouldn't hinge on FIFA rules but instead on the Canadian tradition of diversity and acceptance and also on Canadian rules and law," said spokesman Balpreet Singh.
"This announcement is certainly good news. It's absolutely clear now that any restriction on the wearing of the turban is illegitimate and we're hopeful the Quebec Soccer Federation will now immediately lift its ban.
"The children should really be allowed to play as soon as possible."
A pro-turban community event planned for Montreal on Saturday will go ahead as scheduled, albeit under a different tone given Friday's announcement.
Mukhbir Singh, vice-president for Quebec and the Atlantic region for the World Sikh Organization, says he's thankful for FIFA's stance.
He said the public support has been uplifting and refreshing.
Singh, 25, a Montreal soccer player who has also been forced off the pitch, said he hopes the Quebec federation moves quickly to change its position.
"Whoever is affected by these recent developments, I hope they are all back on the field and no one misses another soccer game," Singh said.
The community event in the city's west end will go on as scheduled.
"Our goal was to rally together in a positive manner, to open a dialogue with the community," Singh said.
"We didn't want it to be a protest or a statement, we want it to be a positive event where we could explain that Sikhs are part of Quebec, we speak French and English and we've been here for a very long time.
"The fact is we're just like everyone else."
Other soccer associations from outside Quebec welcomed the FIFA directive. Quebec was the only province to not abide by a Canadian Soccer Association to permit turbans on the pitch.
"We should not be barring any person from participating in sport, we have to find a way to be more inclusive ... we have to find a way of bringing more people into the sport," said Lucille Abate, president of York region soccer association, a Toronto-area organization with a total of 25 teams and roughly 55,000 members.
Abate said her association supported the suspension of the Quebec branch.
"Discrimination of any sort won't be tolerated, it shouldn't be tolerated in sports," she said.
Political reaction from Quebec's three major parties was mixed, with the PQ saying FIFA's intervention demonstrated that the Quebec Soccer Federation was in the right to ban turbans while awaiting a clear response.
Premier Pauline Marois said the final decision remains the Quebec body's prerogative, but she said the coverage of the issue that painted Quebecers as racist and intolerant was "disgraceful."
"I believe that Quebec society is welcoming, that wants to integrate all of those that want to participate in its values and participate in this reality that we represent collectively which accepts differences but also shares common values," she said.
The Coaltion for Quebec's Future says that regardless of the FIFA decision, the final call should be the Quebec federation's.
"What I said since the beginning, since Day 1 is the same: the Quebec federation should decide, and we'll approve what they will decide, that's it," said Leader Francois Legault.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said that it was important to properly classify the debate.
"This wasn't a debate on religious neutrality of the state or on reasonable accommodation, it was a debate on sport," Couillard said. "Our position on that was let the kids play together."
Couillard, who has a background in medicine, said if player safety is truly at question, then it needs to be proven and examined over an extended period.
- with files from Peter Rakobowchuk
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