FIFA’s decision to allow British teams to wear poppies in the November international break is wrong. The FA are wrong to have been pushing as hard as they have for football’s international governing body to make this exception for them, and it shows a sadly unsurprising weakness for FIFA to have conceded the point.
We danced this dance last year when England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were all flabbergasted to have been fined for doing exactly what FIFA told them not to - wearing poppy symbols in their matches around November 11. The argument hasn’t changed since then, but it seems that FIFA’s resolve to uphold their own rules has.
To recap; players were not allowed to wear the poppy while playing on November 11 last year because FIFA has rules against political expressions in international football - and it falls smack-bang under those lines.
The poppy is a trademarked symbol of the Royal British Legion and they say - direct quote - that the symbol is “worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today.”
As much as the FA are claiming that the poppies are being worn purely to commemorate the dead of the First World War, you can’t wear a symbol with a clearly outlined meaning and then claim that you’re doing something else with it. That’s not how it works.
Make no mistake, support for the past and present of your country’s military is a political statement, whether or not you’re doing it with political action in mind. A glance back through the history of the British army isn’t pleasant reading at times; concentration camps in South Africa, conditions in Kenya in the 1950s, an alarming number of violent incidents against civilians in a war of disputed legality in Iraq.
While the poppy isn’t a defence of those actions, it’s not hard to see how it could be viewed by other countries as support for the institution which perpetrated them. It holds political significance, and to try to ignore or deny that is to be wilfully ignorant. It’s something which is coming to the fore more in recent years, borne on a rising tide of toxic nationalism.
There were no protests when England failed to wear poppies when playing on Remembrance Day in 1999 or 1987, so why last year? Why this year?
The conversation comes in the same week as one of the most powerful weekends of protests in sporting history in the US and at Wembley, with hundreds of NFL players used the pre-game national anthem to take a stand - or, indeed, a knee - to protest again police brutality and institutional racism in America.
The movement, started last year by Colin Kaepernick and continued by a number of players across the league since, has provided an impossible-to-ignore reminder that sport and politics are intrinsically linked.
Seldom has a major political movement occurred in the past century without a sporting event becoming a symbolic moment in one way or another. Jesse Owens in Munich, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968, cricket’s ‘rebel tours’ to South Africa in the apartheid era, Muhammed Ali’s refusal to be a part of America’s war in Vietnam - and scores more besides.
If sport is allowed to play a part in geopolitical issues, it will. What does this matter to modern football? Just look at the Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania in 2014, in which a drone carrying the insignia of so-called ‘Greater Albania’ flew low over the pitch during the match in Belgrade. The game ended up being abandoned after officials, players, fans and coaches all clashed in a mass brawl - leading to tensions off the pitch.
This is why FIFA bans the display of political symbols. It’s why they’re right to do so - and to draw a firm line, with no exceptions. Well, no exceptions until now.
Last year, FIFA secretary general Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura was spot on when she said “Britain is not the only country that has been suffering as a result of war. Syria is an example. My own continent has been torn by war for years. The only question is ‘why are we doing exceptions for just one country and not the rest of the world?’”
This exception weakens FIFA’s position in any future action to block political symbols. The exception is wrong - and will be hard to climb down from.
DISCLAIMER: This column represents the views of one writer, and not 90min as an entity - as does everything on the website.