At this time of year, anyone who comes over to the UK or watches the Premier League will notice that a lot of people wear red poppies ahead of the anniversary Armistice Day on Friday and for Remembrance Sunday, a day where the nation remembers those men and women who have died; particularly those who died in WW1 and WW2, whilst serving in the British Armed Forces.
The poppy appeal was set up by the Royal British Legion, an organisation which provides financial, social and emotional support to veterans and their families. This charity was set up in 1921 as the Earl Haig Fund and the poppy was chosen as the symbol because of its deep association with the battlefields of World War One.
The poppy appeal has absolutely nothing to do with football. Yet, it’s the poppy which is going to cause a problem for England and Scotland with FIFA.
On Friday night, England play Scotland in a World Cup Qualifier at Wembley. Both teams have said that they will have their players wear poppy armbands for the game, which was a compromise FIFA agreed to back in 2011 when they backed down from banning England from wearing the poppy for a game against Spain.
This is in direct contravention of FIFA rule 57.1 which basically states that any political, religious, commercial or personal statements are prohibited from being on any item of playing equipment brought onto the pitch, which includes any kit the players wear.
England and Scotland asked FIFA for permission to wear the poppy and were told ‘no’, but England and Scotland, as well as Wales who play Serbia on Saturday, look likely to go ahead and wear the poppy regardless of the rules, and seem prepared to accept whatever sanctions will follow, which will likely be a fine but could be a points deduction.
Anyone looking at this with a shred of rationality sees that this is a perfectly sensible stance taken by FIFA (that’s a rare sentence to write). One country’s symbol of national pride or commemoration can easily be another’s reminder of some terrible event or misfortune of the past. Rather than having to make rulings on a case-by-case basis, FIFA have decided on a blanket ban, so everyone knows where they stand. FIFA were wrong to back down five years ago, and are right to insist on a ban now.
Rationality however, is not the strong suit of the UK in 2016. Many of the most UK’s popular newspapers have howled with indignation about FIFA not allowing the poppy. The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, described FIFA’s stance as “utterly outrageous” and, without a hint of irony considering the UK supreme court would rule the next day that she wasn’t allowed to bypass parliament and formally start the process for the UK to leave the EU as she wanted to do, followed that up by saying “I should say to FIFA before they start telling us what to do they jolly well ought to sort their own house out”
Once again, I’ll state that the poppy appeal has nothing to do with football. Yet, England, Scotland and Wales are willing to risk a fine, or even a points deduction that could jeopardise their chances of making it to Russia in 2018 over the poppy.
So, why are they willing to do so?
The argument by the FA and SFA (Scottish Football Association) is that the poppy is not a political symbol but a charitable one, so doesn’t fall foul of the rules.
Once upon a time that was correct. Wearing the poppy used to be a nice gesture. People would choose to wear it as a sign they had donated to the charity.
But, in the past 15 years or so, something changed. The poppy became associated with the support of the armed forces in general, and as such, poppy wearing went from being an optional gesture to one that is more or less compulsory, for fear of being seen as disrespectful to those who serve in the military. It seems as though the charitable purpose behind wearing has been forgotten.
Anyone appearing on TV has to wear a poppy or face the faux-outrage of the nation. Politicians must wear one. In fact, the bigger the poppy, the more they care, apparently. Not wearing one is seen as the equivalent to desecrating war graves. People are now, to the horror of the Royal British Legion, purposefully not buying poppies because they don’t like being made to feel like they’re compulsory.
On Monday night, on one of the most-watched shows on the BBC, this happened.
England’s interim head coach, Gareth Southgate said “I think the fact is, as the head coach, I was keen for us to wear the poppies; I think that’s very important. It’s part of the history and tradition of what we are as a nation, the remembrance”
Nonsense. Wearing the poppy may be traditional, but football teams wearing it is not. In 2001, England played Sweden on November 10. None of the England team wore poppies that day, and it wasn’t a big deal.
A few clubs did so earlier, but it was only in 2009 that the practice became widespread. In that year only Liverpool and Manchester United chose not to wear a poppy. Both clubs stated that they didn’t see the need considering they work with and raise money for armed forces charities all year round and allow poppy sellers around their stadiums. But, that apparently wasn’t good enough, and following widespread criticism, both bowed to public pressure the following year and ever since, they and all other teams have worn poppies.
One argument for having football teams wear poppies is that the players themselves want to wear the poppy while playing. Maybe they do. But, it takes a brave player to stand up and refuse to wear one in the current climate; and most players, mindful of the fact that taking any sort of stance may threaten current and future endorsements, choose to stay quiet and wear their poppy, even they don’t understand why.
One of the few who doesn’t wear one is West Brom winger James McClean. McClean has stated the legitimate and cogent reasons behind his decision not to wear one in the past, but every year gets vilified by the media for his stance.
This is such a pointless stance it’s almost untrue. The idea that, should the England, Scotland or Wales player not wear a poppy for the 90 minutes, it will in some way disrespect those who died for the UK in WW1 and WW2 is ridiculous.
A point the FA, the politicians and the media seem to miss is while the poppy wasn’t a political symbol originally; they’ve turned it into one with their shrill, manufactured outrage against FIFA or anyone else who doesn’t wear the poppy. They’ve turned what was once a personal, significant gesture by an individual into a trite, meaningless one.
Every time someone is made to feel like they have to wear a poppy or be a pariah, the poppy is politicised. Every time someone makes the decision that anyone, including Cookie Monster, on TV has to wear a poppy or it will be too offensive for people to handle, it means it’s a political symbol. The fact that the Prime Minister has waded in to the argument, means it’s political.
And as such, FIFA are correct to ban England, Scotland and Wales from wearing it, and will be correct in punishing them when they do.