The poppy war is over. One of the most contorted debates of modern footballing times has ended with the sensible conclusion that red flowers on armbands on sleeves are not “political symbols” and therefore not intrinsically offensive.
It started with a war (1914-18), a red sea of Papaver rhoeas on the Flanders soil where dead men lay, a poem to commemorate that slaughter, and a remembrance ritual that placed millions of poppies on lapels for the benefit of the Royal British Legion. But nothing is ever that simple. An emblem of militarism to some who feel they have suffered from this country’s imperialism, the poppy was never universally embraced. Then along came football to appropriate an issue that was kicked around by royalty, prime ministers and the press before Fifa stepped into No Man’s Land at the weekend to make peace with the Home Nations.
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England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all found themselves in trouble for poppy commemorations around Armistice Day last year, with the Football Association fined £35,308 and a £15,692 penalty levied on Scotland’s equivalent. Six years ago, David Cameron and Prince William were among those who successfully lobbied Fifa to allow poppies on armbands, rather than on shirts, where they now sit in Premier League games.
This tortured debate over the location and prominence of red flowers escalated when Fifa’s policy hardened again last autumn. Claudio Sulser, chairman of the world governing body’s disciplinary committee, said he understood the commemorative element. “However, keeping in mind that the rules need to be applied in a neutral and fair manner across Fifa’s 211 member associations,” he said, “the display, among others, of any political or religious symbol is strictly prohibited. In the stadium and on the pitch, there is only room for sport, nothing else.”
Sport and nothing else? This is an old conceit. Politics are everywhere in sport, in Russian doping, Syria’s football team and the military displays at Twickenham - the biggest demonstration of the sometimes unhealthy confusion in Britain of sport and war. Of all the ways to drive politics out of recreation, banning flowers was among the most ridiculous.
Granted, the poppy has become tied-up in many minds with modern British wars - in Iraq and Afghanistan. An aversion to the use of poppies as emblems for current must be respected. People are dying. The right to take offence is also valid. But many of us still maintain that the poppy is not essentially an aggressive symbol. Just as nobody should be forced to wear one, nobody should be compelled not to wear one.
It as entirely personal choice - and will mean different things to different people. Many still see the poppy as a rejection of war, a reminder of its futility. They pin the red flower on out of sympathy for those who lost their lives, often needlessly. A sensible provision of the new policy is that the opposition must give their approval, which most nations surely will. By backing down, Fifa have finally de-politicised the poppy.