Poppies, football and political symbols

Blog Post by Daniel Fitzpatrick

Despite appeals from the respective football associations of England and Scotland, FIFA has refused to allow players of both teams to display poppies on their shirts during the World Cup qualifier at Wembley tonight. The match coincides with Armistice Day when the United Kingdom traditionally pauses to remember the fallen service men and women killed in conflict.

FIFA’s ban appears to rest on the assumption that the poppy represent a political symbol and as such contravenes Law 4 of the Rules of the Game banning political, religious or commercial messages on shirts or equipment. The Prime Minster took the opportunity at last week’s PMQs to lambast FIFA for its rigidity, decrying its stance as ‘utterly outrageous’.

The controversy over of the poppy ban lies in the confusion on what does and does not constitute the political. Many people would argue that the poppy appeal is beyond party politics certainly (notwithstanding Jeremy Corbyn decision to wear a white poppy). Others still would contend that the poppy is too closely associated with the imperial past of the British state and an implicit endorsement of militarism.

The question is not really whether the poppy is a political symbol; the answer to this is entirely subjective and contingent upon one’s position and relationship to the British state. The more intriguing puzzle is why the poppy is not permitted, when football, and sport in general, is replete with political symbolism. Since the 19th century modern sport (that is organised, codified and then increasingly professionalised) has been an important mechanism for inculcating a sense of national pride, culture and belonging. Important unifying traditions such as singing the national anthem and displaying the national flag are deeply embedded within the fabric of modern sport. So-called sports mega events, such as the World Cup and the Olympics, are utilised for building and consolidating a sense of nationhood and projecting a particular construction of a nation for strategic influence on the global stage.

If the poppy is deemed too political it may be asked why England are allowed to display the Three Lions badge on their shirts. The Three Lions, derived from the Royal Coat of Arms, represents the connection between the monarch and the nation. At the very least the Three lions badge symbolises support for the Crown in the UK (not only England). The motto at the base of the Royal Coat of Arms reads: Dieu et mon droit. The literal translation of this phrase is ‘God and my right’; while now arcane it nevertheless establishes a line of continuity between the period of absolutist monarchy according to the ‘divine right of kings’ and the contemporary era of constitutional monarchy. It also points to a history of military conflict and conquest; it was the symbol used on the King’s shield to identify him in the midst of battle and was displayed by Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades. In this context the badge is far more political, and redolent of war and militarism, than the poppy.

Being more cynical we might question FIFA’s motivations for wanting to keep a clear delineation between sport and politics. FIFA, which is struggling to shore up the crumbling foundations of its legitimacy as the international governing body for football, is attempting to maintain the façade that politics has no place in football. In maintaining the pretence that it is sporting rather than political organisation FIFA is able to preserve its sphere of private governance from incursion from democratic politics. The governing bodies of sport cling to what Lincoln Allison called ‘the myth of autonomy’ for particular institutional imperatives. In arguing that sport and politics can and should be kept apart those in charge of sport seek to perpetuate their position as power holders and arbiters of morality in sport.

This is obvious a fallacy. FIFA, itself, ‘believes that football is more than just a game.’ It publicises a number of laudable policies, programmes and awards on anti-discrimination, poverty and development, and sustainability. In practice its record on these matters is mixed at best, and mere window-dressing at worst. Nevertheless the existence of such wider social and economic aims suggest that FIFA considers such non-sporting issues appropriate for discussion and purposive action in the arena of football. The distinction is that that FIFA launches and administers these programmes in an effort to consolidate its own legitimacy. The more hard line stance over the wearing of poppies now – opposed to the compromise reached in 2011 – speaks to the crumbling legitimacy of the world governing body of football more than the politicised nature of the poppy.

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