Comment: Poppy and other symbols of commemoration have no place in sport

Fifa right to see wearing of poppy it as political statement but it will remain problematic

Wearing of the poppy by players in international matches is banned by Fifa. Photograph: Reuters.

Wearing of the poppy by players in international matches is banned by Fifa. Photograph: Reuters.

 

So Fifa is going to hold an enquiry into the FAI’s decision to mark the 1916 commemoration by having the national team wear special jerseys during a friendly in March this year. And after this weekend, it will no doubt hold another enquiry into the English and Scottish teams sporting the poppy emblem on their sleeves during a World Cup qualifier.

In both cases, the teams are clearly in breach of Fifa’s law four, paragraph four, that bans the wearing of anything that can be construed as a political or religious statement. So why all the outrage?

Is it because Fifa sincerely believes that sport and politics don’t mix (doubtful given the geopolitics and bribery behind many of its decisions in recent years). Is it because, as some commentators are suggesting, Fifa is confusing politics with commemoration (but surely all acts of commemoration are political?). Or is the anger driven by a nationalist minded, post-Brexit referendum Britain that is outraged at what they see as another example of international meddling in its affairs (and in that anger effectively ratting out the FAI who thought they had got away with the 1916 commemoration without Fifa noticing)?

It’s all of these things and much more. It also speaks to one of the joys, and inherent weaknesses in sport: the international element. Ever since the first ever international fixture of the modern age (a rugby match between England and Scotland in 1871) and Pierre de Coubertin’s decision to tie his modern Olympic Games to the nation state, sport has had a fundamental problem.

Celebrates nations

It celebrates nations coming together in friendly competition, but does so against real world events (wars, border disputes, ethnic and religious histories, contested national identities and so on) that often gives a context and meaning to sporting fixtures that is far more complex than simply who won or lost the game.

In the modern age, and for many countries in the developed world, international sporting fixtures are one of the few places where nationalism comes to life.

In the spring of this year the Irish state officially marked the centenary of 1916. And the FAI, on its own ground, in a friendly match against Switzerland, made up special jerseys that featured the official logo of Ireland 1916-2016. For the Irish this commemoration of the men and women of 1916 by its soccer team was unproblematic, but it was, no matter how long it took Fifa to notice, a political act.

And that’s the problem with such symbolism, of marking past battles in acts of commemoration. If you belong to the tradition that’s being celebrated or commemorated then you won’t be disturbed by political symbolism in sport. But, the political nature of symbols isn’t judged by those who wear them, but by those who are potentially offended by them.

And what of poppies in the context of British soccer? The British Legion has been using the poppy as a way of remembering the war dead (and raising funds of £40 million in recent years) since 1921. And while English soccer in particular has a long tradition of honouring the war dead (including the 254 professional players who died in the first World War and the 80 who died in the second), teams only began sporting a poppy on their jerseys in recent years.

This coincided with a noticeable surge in the public visibility of the poppy. But while it may be considered a simple symbol of remembrance, it has to be noted that the increased visibility of the poppy across society since the early 2000s coincided with British participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has dovetailed with a rise in nationalism in all corners of Britain and a rise in racism and Islamophobia.

Those in the public eye who refuse to wear the poppy (such as news presenter Jon Snow or Derry-born soccer player James McClean) are vociferously criticised for their personal choice and dismissed as unpatriotic and accused of dishonouring the dead. The poppy then is a deeply politicised symbol. Placing it on an international soccer jersey may be an unproblematic step for the English and Scottish FAs, but from Fifa’s perspective they are right to see it as political.

Yes, the poppy honours the military dead, but what, in an international perspective, of those who were at the sharp end of British military campaigns? For them, including many on this island, the poppy has different ramifications and therefore has no place on the sleeve of a soccer player in an international match.

Rules against symbols

On balance, Fifa is probably right to have its rule against symbols and in that context, whether its 1916 or the poppy, commemorative acts have no place in sport.

However, as sporting competition is dominated, in a rotating calendar of World Cups, European Cups and Olympic Games, by the nation state and its attendant nationalism (whether banal, celebratory, negative or even aggressive and hostile), it’s clear that national symbols and acts of commemoration will remain problematic.

If sporting bodies like Fifa were serious about removing symbols from sport, out would go national flags and anthems, but that’s not going to happen. Rather they’ll be a constant battle. Each national act of commemoration connected with sport will be viewed by the international governing bodies as political and potentially offensive, while the national organiser, whether the FAI here or the FA in London, will shake their collective head, express disappointment and ask how could anyone be offended by “our” commemoration of “our” glorious and heroic military past?

Professor Mike Cronin is the Academic Director of Boston College in Ireland.

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