The FIFA World Cup 2018 is nearing its end. At the business end of the tournament, France awaits the winner of tonight’s match in the final. The eyeballs of the entire world will be trained on this historic clash between dark horses Croatia, a team that has never made the final of the FIFA World Cup and a young upstart English side, which is looking to turn the corner from years of underachievement by a nation of such storied footballing heritage. At this stage in the tournament – the noise gets noisier, the scrutiny intense and the attention on individual players is magnified like never before. A head-butt ruins a lifelong champion’s legacy while a bench warmer becomes a god. How players express and impress in these games affect the narratives for the rest of their careers, possibly their entire lives.

Danijel Subasic is Croatia’s goalkeeper, their last line of defence and first point of attack. In the Round of 16 match against Denmark, he saved 3 penalties in the penalty shoot-out and single-handedly (pun intended) dragged Croatia to the quarter-finals. That night, Croatia crowned Subasic as a national hero. On a night like that, with the entire world watching and his countrymen singing songs in his praise, Subasic lifted his jersey to reveal the image of his friend, the late Hrvoje Custic.

To put things in perspective, Subasic and Custic were best friends and teammates at Croatian club NK Zadar. In an uneventful match, on an uneventful possession, Subasic overhit the ball aimed for his friend. Custic, unable to bring the ball down, lost his balance and collided head-first with a concrete wall, just beyond the sideline. He died shortly afterwards, in what was described as a freak accident with no foul play involved. It was a sad and premature ending to the life and career of a promising young footballer. This incident occurred in 2008. In memorium, Subasic has been wearing a t-shirt with the image of Custic underneath his jersey, ever since.

Subasic’s act was a heartfelt tribute, reminiscent of a streaking Andres Iniesta after scoring the extra time winner in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final. As Iniesta wheeled away in celebration, he took his jersey off to reveal a hand-scrawled message on his vest paying tribute to his recently deceased close friend and captain of Espanyol FC, Daniel Jarque. Iniesta’s gesture was universally appreciated by football fans, players and pundits. Due to this gesture, Iniesta, a Barcelona lifer, is given a standing ovation whenever he plays bitter cross-town rivals Espanyol, the only away player to receive such respect and reverence from a partisan crowd.

Subasic used the grandest stage to pay tribute to his friend. One would imagine he would be appreciated for honouring the memory of his deceased friend. Instead, FIFA shot him a warning for displaying a “personal message” in violation of the FIFA Equipment Regulations (“Regulations”).

The Regulations prohibit display of any “personal messages” on Player Equipment, which is defined under the Regulations as “collectively the components/items of shirt, short and socks”. However, the Regulations have not defined “personal messages” or listed subjects which are perceived as “personal messages”. Additionally, the display of the so-called “personal message” by Subasic was made on the t-shirt worn underneath his jersey, which falls out of the ambit of Player Equipment.

Rule 28 of the Regulations deal with “Items worn under Playing Equipment”. Specifically, Rule 28.2 of the Regulations states that “Unless not visible when worn under the Playing Equipment, no identification of the Member Association, or further elements such as marks, insignia, statements or slogans shall be displayed on the Equipment items worn under the Playing Equipment.” It is clear that the t-shirt is not visible under the Playing Equipment. Moreover, it is apparent that the contentious image of Custic is not a “mark, insignia, statement or slogan” as envisaged under this Rule or under the Regulations as such.

Players can use the platform of the World Cup to shine a brighter spotlight on their personal opinions. In that context, the intention behind FIFA prohibiting the display of personal messages becomes justifiable, because it does not want to associate with the personal opinions of players or get embroiled in a controversy that has nothing to do with football. However, it is appalling that FIFA is reprimanding Subasic for displaying a “personal message”, especially so when the so-called “personal message” neither offends anyone nor opines on a controversial topic. If the players are prevented from such inert displays of emotion, what comes next? A ban on celebratory dances by players after scoring goals?

The entire world appreciated Iniesta’s gesture as it did Subasic’s. FIFA’s admonishment of the latter is unnecessary and petty, unprecedented and unfounded in the very Regulations they have framed. FIFA has only furthered the negative narrative that it has authored over the last decade. As for Subasic, his narrative is being written by the gods. Already a Croatian hero, he has the opportunity to turn into a worldwide phenomenon if he continues his histrionics between the posts.

We shall forever remember Hrvoje Custic because of him and we shall forever remember Danijel Subasic for paying tribute to a fellow footballer and friend, a rare sentiment that has received unanimous appreciation from this increasingly bitter and divided world.