Forgetting to remember: why FIFA may be right on the poppy

Written by Tom Freeman on 8 November 2016 in Comment

Scotland vs England at Wembley is just the latest battleground over what the poppy symbolises, writes Tom Freeman

'We Will Remember' - credit Michael Garnett

Scotland will battle England on the 11 November, Armistice Day. The battle will be sporting, and take place on a football pitch in London.

I will be there, participating in the tongue-in-cheek rivalry befitting such an occasion.

Hopefully, the event won’t descend into becoming a symbol of tribal tensions over Brexit and the constitution. However, in the lead-up, this fixture has become about a much more serious symbol, the poppy. 


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Both national associations wrote to football’s governing body, FIFA, to request permission to allow players and fans to wear the poppy at the game.

FIFA, who has ordered Scotland to play in their pink ‘away’ kit as the normal dark blue is deemed too close to England’s traditional white, is not known for its balanced, level-headed decision making, especially when money isn’t involved.

However, there is a precedent. Despite rules against footballers wearing national, political, religious or commercial messages on shirts, FIFA has allowed black armbands with poppies on them in the past. 

This time FIFA said no, but there aren’t many level heads when it comes to wearing the poppy. 

Those who seek to publicly shame celebrities who aren’t wearing the poppy come from a growing section of the population who believe it is a symbol of national pride rather than just remembrance. 

Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, claimed wearing the poppy “is an act of huge respect and national pride” but that was before he was caught by the poppy police for having one photoshopped onto his lapel.

All of this distracts from the symbol itself. Poppies grew on the fields where so many tragically and needlessly lost their lives. Part of the act of remembrance must surely be a pledge to never let such a thing happen again.

“The war to end all wars” was one of the most bloody in history, and destabilised Europe to pave the way for fascism and another global conflict after which it was hoped Europe would never be so destabilised again. 

But as the last of those who survived the First World War pass away, and a new blockbuster video game is released allowing a new generation to ‘play’ in a fictionalised version of the conflict, history is being rewritten.

Even as the victims of other conflicts seek refuge in Europe by the hundreds of thousands, the idea of the First World War as a global catastrophe is diminishing, while its status as a British triumph is gaining stock. 

In 2014, as the UK Government sought to embed ‘British values’ into the English curriculum, the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said perceptions of the war were myths peddled by left-wing academics and sitcoms like Blackadder. 

But the war poets and other eye-witness accounts are clear. It was hell on earth. Robert Graves, who was wounded in the Battle of the Somme, wrote: “Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out.” 

FIFA may be right. The poppy is political. It has been politicised since its inception, but now the nature of the appeal, too, is changing.

Forces charity the Royal British Legion is urging us this year to ‘rethink Remembrance’ to include those lost in other conflicts. 

“Great Britain still believes strongly in remembering those who fought not only in world wars, but the more than 12,000 British servicemen and women killed or injured since 1945,” the charity says.

But perhaps if we are careful not to allow nationalists to rewrite the history books, we can avoid allowing that number to get too much bigger. A black armband, after all, is a far more fitting tribute to those who have died than next to a national crest on a uniform.

Whether you wear a poppy or not is less relevant than whether you remember.

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