Wednesday, November 02, 2016

FIFA and poppies

Theresa May has said that it is "utterly outrageous" that FIFA have ruled that poppy logos may not be used on the shirts of the players in the forthcoming England v Scotland qualifier. I know this is a delicate and controversial subject, so I just want to share the questions that it prompted as I reflected upon it.

1. Is is a "poppy ban"?
No - it's a blanket ban. The ban is against all symbols which have a political or religious connotation. When the question about poppies was put to FIFA, it ruled them out on this basis (as it did in Nov 2011) - hence the row. FIFA has to deal with all kinds of sensitivities over symbols and logos all over the world, and in many situations (just think of the Middle East, or even the Balkans, for example) a symbol or logo can be highly inflammatory. Nearer to home, the poppy has become identified with one side in the divisions of Northern Ireland, and has a political connotation there, even if it hasn't in the rest of the UK. And we have to bear in mind that just because something hasn't a political or religious connotation for me, it doesn't mean it doesn't for anyone.

For an England v Scotland game, all players have roots in the respective nations, both of which observe the remembrance ceremonies. In such a context, blanket rules can appear harsh. But might it not be safer to abide by them, rather than risk setting a precedent which could lead to something much more controversial elsewhere? That is the kind of question FIFA has to wrestle with.

This was all expressed very well by Rory Smith on Radio 5 Live

2. Surely wearing a poppy is voluntary?
Wearing poppy logos on football kits is a fairly recent initiative as far as I am aware. It now routinely happens for league games on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday. I have sometimes wondered what players from other nations make of it, and I also noted that it effectively makes wearing a poppy compulsory. There was considerable controversy when James McClean refused to wear a logo shirt in 2014. Regardless of what we make of his particular reasons, we should at least note that this has effectively made poppy wearing compulsory for footballers.

Likewise, there is considerable pressure on those appearing on TV over this period to wear a poppy, and not doing so generates controversy. Looking at some of the ostentatious poppies that have been worn on X-Factor, etc, I have wondered whether we are beginning to miss the underlying meaning. The simplicity of the original poppy was surely part of the point, and the value was that is was a voluntary act, expressing support for the families of the fallen, and those who were injured in conflict.

As the Royal British Legion themselves say:

"Wearing a poppy is a personal choice and reflects individual and personal memories. It is not compulsory but is greatly appreciated by those it helps – our beneficiaries: those currently serving in our Armed Forces, veterans, and their families and dependants."

Obliging people to wear a poppy under pressure is no way to generate the respect and observance which the most vocal proponents desire. Indeed it can be very counter-productive, as Dominic Sandbrook noted last year in (of all things) the Daily Mail!

3. Why Now, and Why This?
Back in the 1940s and perhaps even in the early 50s, some active players would have served in the forces. Some died, others were injured, and all would have had clear memories of the war - whether from home, or from active service. What is curious is that the same pressure to have logo shirts doesn't seem to have been around. I can only speculate that for them, the civic and church ceremonies of remembrance were a sufficient expression of loss, sadness and respect. I expect most wore poppies on the clothes they wore on the way to the match, but not on the pitch. It made me wonder why it wasn't enough to mark remembrance in other ways - e.g. laying a wreath and/or a silence before the match starts. Why does the poppy have to be on the football shirt itself for respect to be properly expressed?

Perhaps it tells us something about where people find and express meaning, now that only a small proportion of the population do so in church. Perhaps these civic signs and symbols express and convey what religious symbols used to do, and that is why they become loaded with such emotion. I also wonder whether in this context of brexit, it reveals that (at least some) Brits want to assert themselves against another international organisation perceived as telling them what to do. Given FIFA's recent track record, it's not surprising they're getting criticised.

I'll finish with what I wrote 6 years ago on the subject of poppies, in the context of the Scottish Premier League insisting on poppies for all SPL football kits that weekend:

"If the controversy focuses on the external symbols of remembrance, then we're missing the point. Wearing a poppy doesn't create respect for those who have died - respect is something that has to come from somewhere deeper than that. For others, remembrance is something they wish to keep discreet and internal, and not be forced into expressing it in a fixed form dictated by society at large. 
So I won't judge anyone on whether they happen to be wearing a poppy or not. I will be wearing one today and on Sunday as I remember the tragedy and loss of war, with so much potential and possibility cut short and as I pray that wars on such scale are never seen again. 
My grandfather survived the trenches. I think he only ever spoke 5 or 6 sentences about it in all the time I knew him. He remembered, and I got the impression that he would have been all too happy to forget most of what he had witnessed. We remember his companions who didn't return, and their suffering and sacrifice in the hope that it will inspire future generations to seek justice and peace in a troubled world." Nov 11 2010

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