Remembrance symbol turns into political football
Every November, Britain is awash with bright red poppies to
honor the nation’s war dead.
Walk down any high street and you’ll see the small paper and
plastic flowers pinned to countless coats and jackets. Turn on the
television and you’ll see politicians and TV personalities wearing
them ahead of Nov. 11, when Commonwealth countries pay tribute to
members of the armed forces who have died on duty since World War
But this week, the apparently innocuous little badge has been at
the center of a furious argument involving world football’s ruling
body, Britain’s prime minister and even the royal family.
The dispute was apparently resolved Wednesday when England’s
Football Association and FIFA reached a compromise that will let
England players wear the poppy on black armbands when they play
Spain in a friendly at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
”While continuing to adhere to the laws of the game, wearing
the poppy on the armband does ensure the poppy will be visible
throughout the game,” the FA said. ”The FA welcomes FIFA’s
decision and thanks them for agreeing to this.”
The deal came only after howls of outrage from Britain’s
politicians, widespread indignation from the British media and a
letter to FIFA President Sepp Blatter from Prince William.
It all started when the FA checked with FIFA that its players
could wear shirts embroidered with a red poppy for the match.
FIFA turned down the request because of its long-standing ban on
political, religious, personal or commercial messages on official
uniforms and equipment – prompting a predictably angry response in
”This seems outrageous,” Prime Minister David Cameron said
Wednesday before the compromise was announced. ”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.”
FIFA had said it would allow both England and Wales, which plays
Norway in Cardiff on Saturday, to observe a minute’s silence before
their matches but remained steadfast in its ban on the poppy.
That wasn’t enough for Cameron and the FA, even after the
association issued a list of 12 other ways in which it plans to
mark Remembrance Day – which falls on Friday.
Prince William, known as the Duke of Cambridge, wrote to Blatter
in support of the FA’s request. Whether his effort had any effect
is unclear, but his sentiment was clear.
”The duke has written to FIFA in his capacity as president of
the FA to express his dismay at their decision,” William’s office
said in a statement. ”The duke’s strong view is that the poppy is
a universal symbol of remembrance, which has no political,
religious or commercial connotations.
”The duke has asked FIFA to apply an exception in this special
Cameron also wrote to Blatter arguing that the symbol was
nonpolitical, while government sports minister Hugh Robertson sent
a similar letter to FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke.
FIFA’s rationale that the poppy could be used as a political
symbol was apparently justified Wednesday when two men claiming to
belong to a right-wing nationalist group – the English Defence
League – staged a protest on the roof of the body’s Swiss
headquarters in Zurich.
A member of the same group was convicted last year of hurling
abuse at Muslims during a soldiers’ homecoming parade.
”We regret to inform you that accepting such initiatives would
open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world,
jeopardizing the neutrality of football,” FIFA said. ”Therefore,
we confirm herewith that the suggested embroidery on the match
shirt cannot be authorized.”
The wrangling continued through Wednesday until the FA announced
that a compromise had been reached.
England players will also wear poppy-embossed jackets during
Saturday’s pre-match national anthems, while a poppy wreath will
also be placed on the Wembley field prior to the match.
The poppy is an official mark of remembrance in many countries
because the flowers were the first plants that rose from the barren
battlefields after World War I.
England plays in November every year, beating Argentina 3-2 in
2005 on the same date as this weekend’s match against Spain and
even playing on Remembrance Day in 1987. England didn’t wear
poppies in either of those matches.
But this year’s furor was big enough to overshadow coverage of
investigations into allegations that England captain John Terry
racially abused an opponent. It also made headlines at a time when
one of Cameron’s ministers is under pressure over a relaxation of
The teams playing in rugby league’s Four Nations tournament have
had no such problems, with England, Wales, Australia and New
Zealand all set to wear poppies this weekend.
England plays New Zealand in Hull on Saturday, while Australia
and Wales meet in Wrexham on Sunday.