Column: For once, FIFA does the right thing
It's often fishy when politicians wade into the world of sports, popping up at just the right moment to be photographed with a winning team and scoring political points off the back of sports as freely as Lionel Messi scores goals.
Latest example, David Cameron. In focusing indignation on FIFA, Britain's prime minister is taking a shot at the easiest of slow-moving targets, a body seen as so discredited by many fans of football that almost anyone who criticizes the sport's international governing body is guaranteed a sympathetic audience.
Only this time, FIFA for once has done something right. More than that, it is standing up for important principles even though doing so makes it look cold, heartless and overly bureaucratic, at least to Britons.
At issue is whether England's players should be allowed to wear a symbol - an embroidered red poppy - on their football shirts this weekend to remember the dead from the past century of wars Britain fought in.
FIFA says no. Its reasons are sound.
A 'yes' to the poppy would set an unnecessary precedent.
North Korea could demand that its players keep their lapel pins honoring dictators Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung when they take to the pitch.
China could request that its team be allowed to commemorate Japan's 1937 slaughter of at least 150,000 people known as the ''Rape of Nanking.''
Japan could ask to wear 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 everyone 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 many Britons.
There is no place for this baggage on a football pitch.
For 90 minutes, leave it all behind.
The enforced neutrality of the pitch - FIFA allows no political, religious, commercial or personal messages on players' kit - enables football to function and thrive as a global game that can cross closed borders and bring together people otherwise divided.
The pared-down simplicity of nothing more complicated than 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, not football, if nations were allowed to advocate their causes on a pitch and wave them in the face of the opposing team or of the world.
But the poppy isn't offensive like the Nazi swastika. It is not a Christian cross or a commercial symbol like the golden arches. FIFA looked insensitive for stamping 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.''
Clearly, the Aston Villa supporter feels very strongly about how FIFA manages football.
Or could it also be that this issue offered Cameron a handy diversion from the far more pressing problems that Britain faces, with FIFA an easy fall-guy?
In Britain, poppies are widely worn ahead of Remembrance Day on Nov. 11 in tribute to soldiers killed from World War I onward. That includes the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Does that make the poppy a political symbol, perhaps even an affront, to those people who opposed the invasion of Iraq and want Britain and other powers to pull their troops out of Afghanistan?
I don't know.
But I do know that FIFA, a football body, shouldn't have to start making calls on which symbols might or might not be acceptable on a football pitch, why, and justify them.
FIFA says it has approved an English Football Association request for a minute's silence at Wembley this Saturday before England plays world and European champion Spain. England's players will also have black armbands to wear during the match and poppy-embossed jackets for the pre-match national anthems. A poppy wreath will be laid pre-match on the field.
But once the whistle blows, keep it simple.
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.