Column: FIFA cave-in on poppy risky for football
England 1, FIFA 0. And at what cost to football?
With help from Prince William and well-timed indignation from
Prime Minister David Cameron, England won this time. It bent FIFA’s
arm so that its players can wear a symbol – a red poppy – during a
football match this weekend, to remember the dead from the past
century of wars Britain fought in.
But the begrudging ‘If you insist’ from FIFA sets an unnecessary
and perhaps risky precedent.
Post-poppy, what’s next? North Korea demanding that its
footballers keep their lapel pins honoring dictators Kim Jong Il
and Kim Il Sung when they play?
Could China now request that its team be allowed to commemorate
Japan’s 1937 slaughter of at least 150,000 people known as the
”Rape of Nanking?”
Can Japan have a dove of peace or other symbol to remember the
atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The list could run on and on.
There are 200 or so countries under the FIFA umbrella, and each
and every one of them has political and social issues, special days
of historical importance, perceived injustices and long-held
grudges, and nationally recognized symbols that are as dear to
their hearts as the poppy is to those Britons who wear it ahead of
Remembrance Day on Nov. 11 in tribute to soldiers killed from World
War I onward.
Football, at least on the pitch, shouldn’t have to make space
for all of this national baggage.
For 90 minutes, leave it behind.
Providing a neutral pitch enables football to function and
thrive as a global game, cross closed borders and bring together
people otherwise divided.
The pared-down simplicity of just 22 players and one ball
enables Israelis to play Palestinians, South Korea to play North
Korea, or Argentina and England to meet in the World Cup four years
after the 1982 Falklands War.
There could be arguments, instead of football, if nations were
allowed to advocate their causes on the field and wave them in the
face of the opposing team or of the world.
For once, football’s ruling body had done the right thing by
initially resisting English pressure.
Political, religious or commercial messages aren’t allowed on
players’ match kit, FIFA said. ”Accepting such initiatives would
open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world,
jeopardizing the neutrality of football,” it explained.
That meant no embroidered poppy on England’s shirt.
But that principled stand, as reasonable as it was, also left
FIFA looking potentially cold, heartless and overly bureaucratic,
at least to Britons.
After all, the poppy isn’t offensive like a Nazi swastika. It is
not a Christian cross or a commercial symbol like the golden
arches. How could FIFA insensitively stamp on such a sweet,
seemingly innocent flower?
”This seems outrageous,” Cameron said Wednesday. ”The idea
that wearing a poppy to remember those who have given their lives
for our freedom is a political act is absurd. Wearing a poppy is an
act of huge respect and national pride.
”I hope FIFA will reconsider.”
It did. Later Wednesday, FIFA caved.
Under a compromise, England players will wear the poppy on black
armbands against world champion Spain at Wembley Stadium on
”The poppy will be visible throughout the game,” England’s
Football Association said.
FIFA will be able to argue that this is a one-off, and that its
honor and rules weren’t trampled on because the poppy will only be
on an armband, not a shirt.
Regardless of whether the poppy itself is or is not a political
symbol, the act of a British prime minister campaigning for it
clearly was. Did the Aston Villa supporter really feel that
strongly about how FIFA manages football? Or was this an issue that
offered Cameron a handy diversion from far more pressing problems
Likely, it was both. Cameron isn’t the first politician to score
political points off the back of sports and won’t be the last. Seen
as discredited by many fans of football, FIFA is the easiest of
slow-moving targets for a politician or anyone to take shots at and
make themselves look good by doing so.
For football, what’s important now is that this not become the
beginning of a long and slippery slope. A poppy on an armband, just
this once, OK, but stop there.
Keep it simple.
Players, a ball.
No more, no less.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow
him at twitter.com/johnleicester.