By Lewis Hutchinson
Little red poppies donned on lapels across the United Kingdom are as closely linked to the coming of autumn as browning leaves, sunset at 5pm or digging out that favourite old jumper. Remembrance of our war dead is part of our calendar here in Britain, part of our way of life. A nod to the past which says ‘thank you’ and a look to the present which says ‘we care’. Why am I making this obvious point to an audience one would assume I can count as converted? Because this little poppy has provoked steady debate over recent years, with FIFA’s ban on the English and Scottish national teams wearing the symbol the most recent edition in this saga.
The international governing body of football say they are sticking to their guidelines, which outlaw any commercial, religious or political symbol on the jerseys of players. Discounting the first two for obvious reasons, the implication of this is that FIFA deem the poppy to be a political symbol.
A judgement like this undoubtedly opens a window onto the distant, backwards, intrusive soul of FIFA, an organisation beset by catastrophic mismanagement and criminal corruption (read: Qatar World Cup 2022). But, leaving FIFA’s structural failings for Gary Lineker to tackle over Twitter, this decision goes deeper in its uselessness. Indeed, it’s totally and utterly counteractive to their stated intention of keeping international football a-political.
That’s because the poppy is not a political symbol. It’s not a symbol of war, not a symbol of imperialism, not a symbol even of freedom or victory. It’s a symbol of remembrance, and that’s it. As the organisers of the Poppy Appeal, the Royal British Legion, themselves say: ‘It’s not the same as wearing a badge with an overt political statement. Most of those who wear poppies do not regard it as a political act. Many will see it as a way to remember loved ones, for instance.’
Rather, to ban the poppy – to ban our remembrance – is the real political act here. It deprives us of what is, for most, a part of our way of life. The ‘a-political’ FIFA, in telling the English and Scottish national teams they cannot be seen to respect the war dead have, I would suspect, lost any shred of respect many in this country had left for them.
The decision also carries no practical logic whatsoever. England’s World Cup qualifier against Scotland will be played on Armistice Day, the 11th November, and as such two minutes’ silence will be observed by the over 80,000 English and Scottish spectators packed into Wembley before kick-off, not to mention the millions at home watching on television. As a ticket holder, I will be among them, and I’m confident most of us there will have our little poppies pinned proudly to our shirts too. In fact, almost the only aspect of the whole occasion to ignore remembrance, if FIFA get their way, will be English and Scottish jerseys. If the poppy is truly a political statement which cannot be associated with international football, FIFA should be cancelling any home nations football game held in early November.
With this a decision which achieves precisely the reverse of FIFA’s intention, and that bears absolutely no basis in practical logic, I suspect and hope that the FA will deliberately disobey their out-of-line masters. And, after all, the Argentinian national team only received a £20,000 fine for displaying a ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’ banner before a game, so we’ll surely be treated in a similarly forgiving fashion. Right?