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The War of the Poppies

10-November-2016 18:36
in General
by Admin

Chambers considers the recent conflict between FIFA and the FA, SFA and FAW

The English and Scottish football associations (the FA and SFA respectively) have been embroiled in a battle with FIFA over whether the two teams can wear poppies when they meet at Wembley on Friday 11 November (which is Armistice Day) in a World Cup qualifier. The Welsh FA (FAW) has also sought permission to wear the poppy for Wales’ qualifier against Serbia the following day.

FIFA has a ban on the wearing of any political images, which it says includes the poppy. Law 4 of FIFA’s ‘Laws of the Game’ (available here) relates to the players’ equipment. The final paragraph to clause 4 states:

“Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements, or images. Players must not reveal undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images or advertising other than the manufacturer’s logo. For any infringement the player and/or the team will be sanctioned by the competition organiser, national football association or to be justified by FIFA.”

‘Equipment’ includes, per clause 2, shirts, shorts, socks, shinguards, footwear and, per clause 4, ‘non-dangerous protective equipment, for example headgear’. FIFA wishes to keep football apolitical and does not wish to have ‘the beautiful game’ used by other interested parties for political purposes. The difficulty the ban creates is defining where to draw the line as to what is political or religious.

FIFA takes the view that the poppy is political. Many in this country disagree and simply say it is worn as a mark of respect to those servicemen and women who served and those currently serving in the British armed forces. However, there is a reason that only 3 of the 4 home nations have applied for permission to wear the poppy (Northern Ireland being the exception), and why each year Rangers have a big poppy display and Celtic do not; in the context of Northern Ireland, home rule and Ulster, the poppy is a political image. It is intimately linked to the British Army’s involvement as, in one interpretation, an occupying army in Ireland.

The matter is complicated by the final line of clause 4. In England, the FA, Premier League, and Football League have taken the view that the poppy is not political and so can be worn without sanction. The authorities in Wales and Scotland follow the same approach. The upcoming fixtures, however, fall directly under FIFA’s authority as it is for the FIFA World Cup (if they were qualifiers for Euro 2020 they would be governed by UEFA). Wearing an image in domestic matches which the vast majority of the audience will not see as political is different from wearing the same image in international matches when the symbol is a tribute to that nation’s war dead.

FIFA’s stance on this is logical and understandable. As Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, FIFA General Secretary remarked, “Britain is not the only country that has been suffering from the result of war.” Indeed, FIFA allowed Ireland to wear a message commemorating the Easter Rising of April 1916 (in which 485 people were killed in a rebellion against British rule) on its shirts in a friendly against Switzerland on 25 March this year, prompting calls of double standards. There are 211 member associations of FIFA so the need for consistency is obvious, particularly so far as it relates to national desires to honour the sacrifices made by its war dead. Difficulties can easily be imagined in international fixtures where both sides wish to remember those killed in opposing sides of the same conflict.

The distinction in this case is that Scotland and England are playing against each other but both wish to wear the same symbol. However, if either of those sides were playing against Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Afghanistan or Iraq, the situation could be very different. FIFA has created a further difficulty for itself by making an exception for England in 2011 when it allowed England, Scotland and Wales to wear black armbands with the poppy on.

Having allowed Ireland’s message, and the poppy in the past, many are asking why FIFA should not make an exception again. However, there is no reason why Britain should be entitled to exceptions in this regard. FIFA needs to determine this matter with greater clarity for the future. Either such symbols are allowed or not. For the reasons above, the ban is logical and makes sense.

The FA, SFA and FAW could have found other solutions before starting a dispute with FIFA by saying they will wear the poppy come what may. We hope that the FA in particular has not engineered a dispute with FIFA so that it can continue to apply pressure to an organisation it believes requires drastic reform. This issue is not a battleground.

The FA, SFA and FAW could have agreed that they would not put the poppy on the players’ shirts but would encourage the fans to create their own displays, as will happen in any event. No-one would reasonably suggest that the players not wearing the poppy (having laid a wreath and observing a minute’s silence) was a mark of disrespect. FIFA’s need for consistency when it comes to keeping football apolitical is obvious. It is foolhardy of the FA, SFA and FAW to oppose it regardless of the consequences.

Whatever the ultimate outcome in action, inaction or reprisals, we do not forget we remember a world war thought to be so horrific it would end all wars – yet through battle we learn nothing.


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© Chambers of Lawrence Power