And so it ends. Ninety-three years of England’s ignominious and unpatriotic failure to wear poppies on their shirts comes to a deserved end, and a nation can rest easy, safe in the knowledge that now football has fallen into line, people will actually start wearing poppies for the first time ever. Or something like that. Football is not ignorant of military matters. Help for Heroes were the official charity supported by the Football League in 2009, whilst FA Cup final pre-match shows are really adverts for the practiced drilling of the armed forces, whilst uniformed comrades take care of the silverware, bringing it to view before the match to mass acclaim, and bringing it to the balcony before it is presented to the winning team. All this, and three seats for the Armed Forces within the FA Council.
Yet despite this, and despite knowing for months that England would be playing Spain the day after Armistice Day, it seems to have only occurred to them last Saturday that it was a matter of supreme importance to a nation’s remembrance and sense of itself that the England teams have a poppy embroidered onto the shirt. That this was after a lot of people – journalists included – had seen all Premier League club do this in their last round of games before November 11th, is doubtless a crazy coincidence. FIFA, ever alive to opportunities to play the pantomime villain for their friends in the English press pack refused, citing their blanket ban on all commercial, political and religious messages on the shirts worn in matches which take place under their jurisdiction.
FIFA rightly have long-standing rules in place, mindful of the power of the game to be used to further dark agendas, and equally mindful of the nature of political matters to be judged very differently depending on where one stands. Would that they have been in place in 1938 to save England’s players from being advised to give a Nazi salute before playing Germany. But sadly – for many, many more important reasons than this – FIFA are perhaps the last people on earth to be able to survey the high ground of principle from their strong fortress of legitimacy.
What FIFA actually practice is the highest and most powerful example of politics of all – the ability to decide what is and is not political. Behind the canard that sport and politics shouldn’t be mixed lies the pure power to decide what is and isn’t political, and so what will, and will not be tolerated in mixing with sport. Racism was political – and not to be mixed with sport – when the old guard stonewalled developing world pressure to tackle apartheid. The new guard who understood that sensibility changed tack, and now FIFA’s stance is that anti-racism isn’t political and can be mixed with sport. It’s a welcome change, of course, but on no level can it be seen as apolitical.
Commercial matters are most definitely not political in FIFA-land; certainly not how FIFA ensures host countries for World Cups give them carte blanche to pretty much do as they commercially please, and rewrite their laws and tax codes. It also isn’t political to allow national teams to display the logo of the kit manufacturer, a commercial message if ever there was one. Adidas, after all, would expect nothing less from the people they groomed for power back in the day. A similarly conflicted bunch joined the debate in the form of a phalanx of politicians, all anxious to say that commemoration of the dead of wars is not political. Whilst the wars in which those people die are a matter for debate and decision by politicians, it will always be political, and it is specious to claim otherwise.
Never mind that the Chief Executive of the British Legion said “The Legion never insists that the poppy be worn or insists that others allow it to be worn.” But who cares what that pen-pushing pinko thinks, when there’s a jingoistic juggernaut on the move. Either stay still and be run over, or get on board and watch it magically become a bandwagon. When Prince William also joined Cameron and for a tantalizing few hours, we wondered whether, inspired by the Roses, Becks would rejoin the band and bring back the inglorious days of The Zurich Failures, ready for one last crack at breaking FIFA.
And then there’s the FA. Despite having had months to think about it, they also failed to think about other things they could do. They might have demonstrated support towards military charities by encouraging all the players to donate to them; perhaps their pool fee from the commercial revenues the FA earns from their presence, or – heaven forfend – the wages we know they will earn from their clubs whilst on international duty. The FA could itself donate proceeds of the match, were it not for the fact that they haven’t got the ability to be so generous with their funds as we might like of the governing body in the richest footballing country on earth.
In the same vein, Government itself could, you know, actually support the families of the dead and the wounded in wars they have sent them on, rather than needing the amelioration of the greatest sacrifice to require an annual begging bowl to be passed around. But this isn’t a time for practical actions which will actually make a difference, or judiciously picking one’s fights with the global governing body in order to bring about the reforms desperately needed. This is a time for gestures. A gesture to want to place the poppy on the shirt and a gesture to make it the acme of Blatterite perfidy.
It’s a convenient time for a gesture, it must be said. With little domestic football, it’s a slow news week and all media eyes will be turned to the forthcoming friendly as they seek non-stories to fill the burgeoning print and online football press. What to write about? There’s Rooney’s ban from 2012, the hardy perennial of the coach’s salary and future intentions and, most troublingly, the fact that a senior members of the squad and former national captain is currently subject of an investigation by the police into whether he racially abused a player. Poppygate has certainly enabled the FA to avoid the kind of glare they’d have found unwelcome as they tiptoe through the legal, moral and commercial minefield of Terrygate.
But it’s not just that. There’s a something bigger here, more political than mere serendipitous public affairs management. The shrill calls for compulsory observance might be a relatively new development, but they’re awfully reminiscent of the criticism the game got some 98 years ago for unpatriotically not setting an example for the chaps needed to enlist to bash the Bosch. The four clubs who did not get poppied-up for their pre-Armistice Day match last year were hauled over the coals for their failure. They were in line the next-year, but papers must be sold though a new target lined up in the form of the England Team. They assented to wear the poppy, so the gaze moves to FIFA. And if its not this issue, it’s the referee who had the temerity to apply the laws to the national team’s detriment.
But there’s even more here than even this – a sense that it’s not even just media cynicism and hyperole making it into the issue of the day. Witness the USA, where there has been a conscious effort use sport to promote the military and, crucially, its actions, at a time when the morality and wisdom of those actions are fiercely contested and very far from unanimously shared amongst fans (but pretty unanimously shared amongst those who own the clubs). As a result of their enforced co-option, sports grounds become places where the debates and disputes in wider society get played out, often with great tension. We’re not there yet. One of the strengths of the Poppy Appeal has been the way in which by focussing on the fallen, it moves the focus away from the contentious politics of the war in which they fought and onto the human scale. Family histories can link the sacrifice made by individuals to the defence of the very best values of democracy and the very worst way in which fascism forced them to be defended.
One of those values was freedom, which at its base must, surely, mean the freedom to choose. That includes the freedom of fans to choose whether to support or not foreign policy actions in their own way at a time of their choosing rather than find they’ve gone to watch a sporting event and become co-opted in military boosterism. It should include the freedom of players to not be compelled to remember fallen in wars that have no meaning to them, or carry very different meanings due to their nationality. Maybe some would like to wear a white poppy (unlikely), or no poppy at all (likelier).
But most of all, it should include the freedom to be able to choose to remember, so that when people wear a poppy on their lapel, it is because they truly, authentically wish to take a moment to remember the fact that their forebears gave their lives in ways that delivered millions from tyrannies and miseries. In short, the freedom to trust remembrance to be genuine, something threatened by the hue and cry to never mind the sentiment, just get the goddamned symbol on.