Shame On FIFA

Posted on 16 December 2011

Sepp Blatter doesn’t feel that FIFA gets a fair press in England. His many critics may counter that the controversial boss of global football could be said to get a fairer – albeit hostile – press in this country than anywhere else. The FIFA boss would be well advised to think about getting some better public relations advice, since the FIFA decision to refuse England permission to wear poppies on the national team shirt when they play world champions Spain next Saturday, on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday was never going to be easily understood.

FIFA claims to be following its rule-book. Since that bans political, religious or commercial symbols on national shirts, there is no reason other than a misinterpretation of the rules to apply it to the poppy, which is none of those, but rather a symbol of remembrance.

The FA did not seek a confrontation with FIFA and may well be surprised to find itself in one. It is to be hoped that common sense will yet prevail. There could be any number of ways to resolve the issue – for example, through the established football tradition of wearing black armbands, and including a poppy motif on these– though the objection to their inclusion on the shirt appears a petty one.

Periods of silence for remembrance resonated deeply with the footballing public this weekend, the last on which club football is being played before November 11th (due to the international fixtures next week), as 18 Premiership teams wearing poppies on their club shirts. This was primarily an opportunity for large crowds to demonstrate respect and remembrance, while also helping to promote the appeal for funds for the British Legion to support its practical causes and work.

It is entirely appropriate for the national to want to do the same thing, and for the public to expect them to be able to do so.  There will be media pressure this week for England to defy the FIFA ruling, though I can imagine the FA’s cautious governors and lawyers deciding not to escalate the confrontation.

Such ceremonies of remembrance are held in many different aspects of our national life and culture. There are also some specific reasons why it is particularly appropriate for football to ensure it participates, even if some of these are unlikely to form part of the Football Association’s case to FIFA, as they do not mark the finest hour of England’s football governance either.

Football was used very directly and prominently to send young men to the trenches. In particular, the 1915 FA Cup final, nicknamed the Khaki Cup final, as controversy grew about whether professional football was appropriate during a war which had not ended as quickly as anticipated, was used with the FA’s permission by Lord Kitchener as a recruiting station to promote participation in “the greatest game of all” on the battlefields of Europe, before the professional game then ceased for the duration of the conflict. There is an excellent account of this in David Goldblatt’s superb ‘The Ball is Round’ social history of football.

Secondly, it could also be unkindly pointed out that FIFA’s objection to political slogans on the field has been rather selective. There was no FIFA veto on the FA’s shameful decision that the England team should give their infamous Nazi salute before playing Germany in Berlin in 1938, so as not to offend their hosts. Having failed to see anything to object to then, it might be considered good form for FIFA to drop its objection to the rather less contentious issue of poppy wearing today.

Thirdly, it would be extremely likely that the attitude of the Spanish FA would be supportive of the British tradition of remembrance being reflected at Wembley.  Modern democratic Spain itself pays tribute to those international brigades, from Britain and elsewhere, who took part in anti-fascist activity in the Spanish Civil War.

FIFA is of course gesturing towards the soundbite that it seeks to “keep politics out of sport” – though this idea has always been both incoherent in principle and selectively applied in practice. Often, the bosses of global sport use it as cover to find lucrative common ground with demagogues and dictators. But, whether the choices made are good or bad, based on sporting values or personal whim, there is no way to keep politics out of sport. Banning South Africa because of apartheid is a political decision; deciding that sport could have nothing to say about apartheid would be a political decision too.

The message “say no to racism” is – of course – a valuable political statement of our common humanity, rightly endorsed by FIFA in the ceremonies and banners it organises before World Cup games to promote this argument, itself now unfortunately a subject of controversy in English football. So to fear that not refusing England’s bid to wear poppies would somehow open the floodgates to difficult and inappropriate bids from other Football Associations simply speaks to a lack of confidence in the governing body’s core function of being able to make legitimate and appropriate decisions in particular cases.

Over the last decade or so, it is striking how ceremonies of remembrance have showed how they can become more resonant and inclusive, rather than less.

There were fears that they would play a more marginal role in our national memory as those generations directly involved in the world wars age. If anything, this seems to be generating a sense that remembrance for the sacrifice of those generations matters more and not less.

Through an increased awareness of the enormous sacrifice of Commonwealth soldiers of so many races and nations, ceremonies of remembrance also remind us that our diversity in Britain today is not some surprising new development over the last few years, but rather deeply rooted in the shared histories which have made us who we are.  That is why football supporters will want the England football team, one of our highest profile national institutions, particularly with children and teenagers, to play its part in this national occasion.

Of course, participating in remembrance should be a personal choice. Some pacifists choose the white poppy as their preferred symbol of solemn remembrance, though few of us who wear red poppies believe these are militaristic. (A very small minority do occasionally grumble about “poppy fascism”, claiming to perceive an excessive pressure to conform to a shared social norm, but they do seem to me to much overstate and so rather badly mislabel this case. For those seeking reassurance, they will share my relief that Jon Snow can happily go about his excellent work presenting the Channel Four news, making his case about why he doesn’t wish to wear a poppy on screen, with absolutely no oppressive consequences of his brave defiance of so called ‘poppy fascism’ whatsoever).

The FA will, this week, continue to appeal for some common sense at FIFA. For FIFA to say no will only bring those who govern the international game into further disrepute.

This post was originally published on the Iain Dale blog, www.iaindale.com

By Sunder Katwala