For several years James McClean, a West Bromwich Albion football player, has refused to wear the poppy, because he says it represents all the wars that Britain has been involved in, including in Northern Ireland, his home. The British army killed 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland. The midfielder is one of the few players in the high-profile Premier League – a world infested with agents, public relations managers and self-proclaimed advisers – to have publicly renounced the poppy. When West Bromwich visit Sunderland, the home fans shout “No surrender to the IRA [Irish Republican Army]” at McClean.
On Friday, England and Scotland will re-enact the oldest international footballing rivalry in the world in a World Cup qualifier at the iconic Wembley Stadium at London. They will do so, wearing black armbands with poppies, notwithstanding the ban football’s global governing body FIFA has imposed on wearing that very wardrobe accessory. England and Scotland’s respective football associations are defying their governing body, who invoked the laws of the game as justification of the ban.
“The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images… The team of a player whose basic equipment has political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA,” reads FIFA’s Law 4, as furthered by the International Football Association Board.
Taking political correctness a little too far?
“Britain is not the only country that has been suffering from the result of war,” said Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s general-secretary. “The only question is, why are we doing exceptions for one country and not the rest of the world?”
“I think the stance that has been taken by FIFA is utterly outrageous,” reacted United Kingdom Prime Minister United Kingdom. “Our football players want to recognise and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security. I think it is absolutely right that they should be able to do so.”
“Before they start telling us what to do, they jolly well ought to sort their own house out,” added May.
The squabbling between 10 Downing Street (with England’s Football Association in tow) and FIFA – or alternatively, between David Cameron’s successor and a Gianni Infantino stooge who joined FIFA from the United Nations under a smokescreen of projected reform – is not as instructive as McClean’s uneasy relationship with the poppy, which reflects a growing sentiment that the emblem is both an expression of “institutionalised patriotism” and a bigoted version of military triumphalism. The poppy no longer represents the mourning and regret, when introduced in 1921, to commemorate British soldiers fallen in wartime and to encourage collective remembrance.
And so, dress code in a game of football has become politicised, in the larger context of Britain’s place in football and in the world. In the 60’s and 70’s, Poppy Day represented a calendar event of the establishment in Britain. It was a moment of demonstrated respect and reverence, a tradition that, along with the Lord’s Prayer, the national anthem and Christmas carols, was scarcely questioned. These acts carried limited political significance.
At the same time, FIFA was transforming into an institution of global “inclusion” – African nations joined, lobbied for World Cup slots and the Brazilian football administrator and autocrat João Havelange became the organisation’s new president in 1974. His ascension to power was a seismic shift: the epicentre of footballing power no longer resided with Europe, who had long enjoyed the patronage of Sir Stanley Rous.
A shift in power and prestige
Havelange commercialised the game, with huge sponsorship deals and increased revenue from television rights. Gradually, England, once supreme in the game, were marginalised. They yielded little influence at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, and their results were, with the periodic striking of a clock, erratic, often self-inflicted failures of burlesque proportions.
Today England’s rank in world football is fragile. As a nation, England is suffering from an existential crisis after last June’s vote to leave the European Union. It was ill-timed, inappropriate, disrespectful, according to the mainstream liberal media and the European establishment. But the Britain’s embattled “underclass” had a different opinion.
Poppygate is another part of this narrative. Have nationalists and right-wing politics co-opted the simple red flower amid a storm of tabloid protest and social media outrage over FIFA’s ban? Across Europe, protectionism is in the ascendancy and politics are swinging away from the centre. France and Austria are both seeing a rise in xenophobia and Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland is, indeed, an alternative not worth contemplating. Poppy-pinning has become socially divisive. Football’s governing body sticks to political correctness not wanting to offend other countries, and possibly minorities.
Yet, stripped bare from the pointless back-and-forth controversy, the commercialism and political opportunism, the poppy is a flower that grew amid the mud and horror of World War I in Flanders Fields, and beyond, and has come to symbolise generations who ensured that our world does not dilapidate too quickly into global conflict. Not honouring the act of remembrance, not remembering that sacrifice, on Armistice Day, at England-Scotland may well be unjust. The world we live in today may need the poppies to bloom more than ever before.