SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 6: Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez shoots straight at Sheffield United’s Wes Foderingham during the Premier League match between Sheffield United and Liverpool FC at Bramall Lane on December 6, 2023 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images) | CameraSport via Getty Images

Questions are being asked in the English Premier League after the player captaining Sheffield United on Wednesday night failed to wear the rainbow armband being used to raise awareness of inclusion in sport.

The English top-flight has been marking 10 years of the Rainbow Laces campaign, with all 20 clubs currently activating the LGBTQ initiative across two rounds of games.

Since 2016, captains have worn armbands in the traditional Pride rainbow colors during designated fixtures, bringing additional visibility on match days.

In more recent years, special anthem boards, ball plinths and flags have also been in use.

Fans picked up on the absence of the armband on Anel Ahmedhodžić as the Bosnian captained Sheffield United in their 2-0 home defeat by Liverpool, with media in his homeland later reporting the news too.

Last Saturday, former Northern Ireland international midfielder Oliver Norwood had the rainbow armband on when he skippered the struggling Blades in a 5-0 loss at Burnley.

Sheffield United’s club captain, John Egan, has been out injured since late September. Chris Basham took on the role but suffered a severe leg injury himself in the very next game.

Norwood stepped up to lead the team in the subsequent six fixtures but was dropped to the bench by new manager Chris Wilder for the midweek visit of Liverpool to Bramall Lane, with Ahmedhodžić assuming the captaincy.

After the game, Wilder told reporters he had no idea why the 24-year-old had the standard armband on. Ahmedhodžić’s counterpart, Virgil van Dijk, wore the rainbow version for the visitors.

Ahmedhodžić is a Bosnian Muslim who has publicly discussed the role that faith plays in his life. It is not clear if religion played any part in his not wearing the armband.

It’s a potentially sensitive subject to raise. The Premier League’s official website explains its support by saying: “Our clubs will come together between 2-7 December to celebrate Stonewall’s 2023/24 Rainbow Laces campaign and show support for all LGBT people in football and beyond.”

A separate article reads: “During the campaign window, rainbow armbands will be worn by captains across all 20 games, with Rainbow Laces branding also widely visible within stadiums throughout the period.”

There is no suggestion that the rainbow armbands are mandatory but Outsports is unaware of any previous occasion during the annual activations in the Premier League since 2016 that a player captaining his team has not worn one.

Last season in the Netherlands, Orkun Kökçü refused to wear a rainbow armband when playing for his then club Feyenoord.

“I fully understand the importance of this action, but because of my religious beliefs, I don’t feel [I’m] the right person to support this,” said the Turkey international afterwards.

Meanwhile, in the top two divisions in France, a number of players chose to sit out their respective clubs’ games when the shirt numbers of jerseys were again in rainbow colors as part of an anti-discrimination drive linked to the annual International Day Against Homophobia on May 17.

It has been reported in recent weeks that all these leagues — the Eredivisie, and Ligues 1 and 2 — will look to take a different approach to their campaigns when they activate them later on in the current season, in a bid to avoid the message being overshadowed by player refusals.

The first rainbow armband in men’s soccer was worn by USA captain Michael Bradley in Seattle in Pride Month 2016, in a Copa America match against Ecuador.

It was in tribute to the victims of the Orlando nightclub tragedy five days previously.

Five months later, when the Rainbow Laces campaign returned to English football with the Premier League on board as official partners for the first time, the armbands were introduced for captains to wear.

With very few players choosing to wear the actual laces (it is claimed by some that they are incompatible with modern soccer boots), it was hoped that those players already appointed into positions of leadership and responsibility would carry the visibility on the field.

That has been the case for eight consecutive seasons. Players to have worn the armband have included those who have spoken about their faith or are known to be religious, including Manchester City’s Fernandinho (2016) and Crystal Palace’s Joel Ward (2023) — both devout Christians — and Palace’s Mamadou Sakho (2017) and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka (2018), who are both Muslims.

In an interview with the Sheffield Star in March, Ahmedhodžić discussed his preparations for Ramadan and said: “I have not always been, how do you say, a good boy and disciplined when it comes to my religion as I should have been.

“But as I have grown up over the years it has become more and more important for me.”

Since 2020, Sheffield United have been one of the most proactive English clubs when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion, in large part due to their close relationship with supporters group Rainbow Blades.

Both the club and the fan group, which is for LGBTQ people and allies, have won awards in recognition of their work in creating a welcoming environment on matchdays and related activities in the local area, often undertaken alongside the Sheffield United Community Foundation.

There are two more Premier League fixtures on Thursday night that fall within the Rainbow Laces period, before the campaign activation concludes for another year.

It’s always been amplified with the aim of starting constructive dialogue that helps to reduce homophobia and demonstrate that lesbian, gay, bi and trans people are part of football too.

However, this latest talking point could prove to be its most challenging conversation yet.

Outsports approached Sheffield United for comment and a club spokesperson said: “Sheffield United remains proud to continue to support the Rainbow Laces campaign and play a key part in ensuring our LGBTQ+ supporters feel welcome and included at Bramall Lane.

“In partnership with Stonewall, the Premier League and EFL support the campaign each year with set dates for activation. Football clubs across the country celebrate the campaign and show support for LGBTQ+ people in numerous ways.

“This year, at the fixture against Liverpool, Sheffield United marked the campaign by: rainbow corner flags; John Street Family Stand being decorated with Rainbow steps; both dugouts adorning rainbow coloured sponsorship; Rainbow Blades SUTV show feature; players having Rainbow Blades warm-up T-shirts; Rainbow Blades ‘Team Ally’ pitch side photo; LED and big screen messages; Sheffield United Community Foundation delivering LGBT+ workshops and participating in #KeepItUp for LGBTQ+ Inclusion Keepy-Uppy Challenge.

“It was our understanding that clubs could make their own decision with regards to how to support the campaign.

“In addition, we work closely with the Rainbow Blades and have done so since their inception and will continue to support future campaigns and initiatives.”

In a statement, Rainbow Blades told Outsports: “As the official LGBTQ+ and Allies Supporter Group for Sheffield United, Rainbow Blades actively support the Rainbow Laces campaign.

“We believe football is for all and are naturally disheartened that the Rainbow armband was not worn by last night’s Captain during our Rainbow Laces fixture vs Liverpool.

“We are in dialogue with the club about the importance of visual allyship, especially during a national campaign such as Rainbow Laces. We have a strong relationship with the Club and have their support.

“We will continue to work with Sheffield United, as we always have done through our strong relationship, continuing to create a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ football fans at Bramall Lane.

“We are pleased with this year’s activation with Sheffield United marking the campaign in numerous ways.

“We will continue our work to promote LGBTQ+ inclusion at both Sheffield United and in the wider football community.”

Sasha Misra, Associate Director of Communications at Stonewall, told Outsports: “Rainbow Laces is designed to be a campaign everyone can get behind — but participation is not mandatory.

“That’s what makes lacing up or wearing a captain’s armband up such a powerful gesture — more than a million people have worn the laces as a statement of solidarity for LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport.

“Allyship from top athletes matters, but we know there are many complex and valid reasons why an athlete may not feel in a position to openly support the campaign.

“But we have shown over the last decade, through visibility and powerful stories, that LGBTQ+ support can and should transcend politics, borders and religion.”

Outsports has also contacted the Premier League for comment.