A controversy over faith, sports and tolerance in Canada appears to be heading toward resolution after soccer's top authority gave its approval to Sikh turbans on the field.
The nod from soccer's world body, FIFA, could bring an end to Quebec sports officials' ban on Sikh head coverings, which sparked a nationwide furor and gained worldwide attention. The Quebec Soccer Federation has called a 10 a.m. news conference for Saturday at which it is expected to repeal the widely criticized measure.
If it goes ahead, it will open the door to as many as 200 turban-wearing Sikh boys hoping to play organized soccer again after being told they were unwelcome.
The turban debate spilled from the soccer pitch to the political field after Quebec soccer executives gained support from Parti Québecois Premier Pauline Marois. On Friday, as opinions shifted away from the Premier, Ms. Marois maintained that the provincial soccer group was right to wait for FIFA's ruling.
"The Quebec federation was totally within its rights to make this decision [for the ban], and I continue to respect its autonomy," she said in Quebec City. She said criticism of Quebec over the turban ban, the only such prohibition in Canada, was "sad" and "a shame."
"There are plenty of countries in the world where different rules apply and people respect one another," she said.
FIFA issued its decision after the Canadian Soccer Association suspended the Quebec group this week over the dispute. In its ruling, FIFA specifically addressed Canada and said that men's head coverings were permitted as long as they met safety standards and complied with rules such as being the same colour as uniforms. The rules applied "in all areas and on all levels of the Canadian football community," FIFA said.
In issuing its ruling, the body demolished one of the Quebec group's two arguments against turbans. The Quebec federation argued they were a safety risk, although it never offered any evidence. It also said FIFA had not explicitly endorsed turbans.
The Quebec Soccer Federation said it welcomed FIFA's decision with "enthusiasm and relief" because it offered the clarity it was seeking. FIFA's ruling is temporary, and the body is expected to issue a final decision next year.
Quebec has been roiled for years by debates about the place of religion and the accommodation of minorities in the province. Sikh organizations, which say the Quebec Soccer Federation has not responded to their requests to discuss the issue for two years, hope FIFA's intervention has put an end to the saga.
"We hope [the Quebec federation] will do the sensible thing and lift the ban," said Balpreet Singh, spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada. "We look forward to the day when all children can play soccer regardless of their faith and background. At the end of the day, it was really about letting these kids play with their friends. It confuses us why it had to go this far." He noted that registration for organized soccer is over and hoped the deadline would be extended to allow Sikh children around Montreal to return to the field.
Most, though not all, Quebec commentators were critical of the turban ban, while public comments on news websites often expressed hostility to religious headwear on the pitch – some calling it a refusal to integrate. (A Léger Marketing poll found that more than 80 per cent of Quebeckers think athletes should not be allowed to modify their gear for religious purposes.)
However, other people showed gestures of solidarity toward the sidelined Sikh boys. On Friday night, a group of non-Sikh soccer players in Montreal's West Island planned to don turbans during their regular league match.
"I think the Quebec ruling was wrong and I don't think it's fair that kids who wear turbans couldn't play," said organizer Derek Kopke. "I just felt it was something to stand up for."