Fifa has recently denied a request to make an exception to the ban on political messages in the sport, which would allow English and Scottish players to wear armbands featuring poppies for their upcoming match at Wembley.
In an act of defiance, the Football Association’s Greg Clarke stated that players in the November 11 game will be sporting poppies despite Fifa’s ruling. For football fans, November 11 marks the important date of the 2018 World Cup qualifier but, for British people in particular, it also signifies Armistice Day: a day of remembrance for veterans and those who have given their lives in armed service.
The poppy has been associated with Armistice Day ever since Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae saw a war-torn field blooming with poppies for the first time since battle in the spring of 1915. Previously beautiful meadows reduced to mud were a striking reminder of the war for many, a physical extension of an atmosphere of fear and hurt in the face of loss and hardship.
McCrae wrote a poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, which cemented the poppy as a symbol of hope and remembrance. Now, every November 11, many poppies are purchased from charities that donate the proceeds to veterans and their families.
In a match against Spain in 2011, Three Lions players were allowed to wear armbands featuring the poppies in an attempt to add meaning to the game by reminding those in the crowd of those who had sacrificed their lives in armed combat. However, Fifa has staunchly denied both teams this privilege for the upcoming match, citing the ban on “political, religious or commercial messages on shirts”.
On Wednesday night, after negotiations with Fifa resulted in no leniency, the FA released a statement declaring their intentions to pay, “an ultimate tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.” They clarified later in the statement that they are not intending to dispute the clause prohibiting political messages on shirts, but rather arguing against the interpretation of the poppy as political.
They do not believe that it “represents a political, religious or commercial message, nor does it relate to any one historical event.” While the statement eschews any ties to a particular historical event, the adoption of the poppy as a national symbol of remembrance took place directly after the first world war, with proceeds from the sale of poppies going to veterans.
This suggests a historically contingent symbol with a direct political effect. Furthermore, some object to the exception being made to the rule for just one country. After the 2011 exception, many pointed out the numerous national days of remembrance that had been ignored.
The idea of England being exceptional is one made more persuasive in the light of Theresa May’s resounding endorsement of the poppy exception in the House of Commons, reflecting her consistent nationalist agenda. The most vocal objections, however, come from those who argue against the respectful remembrance of those who have committed violence in what is supposed to be an international forum for the enjoyment of football without political expression.
There are few who would claim that the British army has always been an exclusively benevolent player on the world stage and, while many soldiers died fighting for their country, not everyone can agree that it was worth the cost. Iraq, for example, has had an enormous count of civilian casualties since the allied invasion in 2003 and, to many Iraqis, there could be few things more political than English players honouring their fallen soldiers in a peaceful international venue.
While England have committed to defying Fifa despite any potential point deductions or fines, the Scottish team has made no such assurances.
Perhaps England standing ahead in their group by two points has something to do with their insistence on this national message. With Scotland in fourth place and not ready to commit to any potential point losses, this begs the question: why this year?
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