The Poppy Debate: Politics and Patriotism

Written by Mark Docherty

Matches between England and Scotland are renowned for being a mark of the beautiful football, passionate supporters, and national heroes. Unfortunately the latest volume of England versus Scotland was overshadowed by a debate which, like it or not, has become political.  The two teams involved now face legal action after choosing to wear armbands with poppies on them despite being warned by FIFA that political and religious statements prohibited from being displayed on international kits.  This has reopened the debate on whether or not wearing a poppy is a political statement, whether FIFA were right to take action and, of course, whether it matters.

The FIFA ethics committee seem hell-bent on setting the world to rights, fighting corruption wherever it rears its head. It is lucky that our football custodians are so clear on their morals and can look after the beautiful game, stopping it from going through anything which would mar its pristine reputation by taking action against those countries who disobey their divine word.  The punishment for England and Scotland will almost certainly be a heavy fine to put them in their place and discourage future disobedience.  This is unlikely to have a particularly large impact on either country as, realistically, the scale of the fine FIFA will implement is not going to be heavy enough to have a major effect, so the subject is only relevant as a matter of principle rather than a matter of protecting either FA.


credit Ronnie Macdonald

This, of course, begs the question of whether the fine – or even the issue – really matters.  As neither Football Association is short on funding and there is very little chance of either side getting a points deduction, it would be easy for both teams simply to move on, pay their fine, and keep their heads down in future.  However, it is very likely that both FA’s will appeal against any punishment they are given and that they will fight their corner for the integrity of the governing bodies and the Poppy Appeal itself.  On the other hand, they could have gone down the route chosen by the Football Associations of Wales and both Irish nations and exclude the design of a poppy from their kits, armbands, and everything else their teams wore over the international break.  They all conducted remembrance ceremonies prior to their games and little or no fuss was made about the decision not to wear a poppy.  This suggests that it would probably have been the easier option to abide by FIFA’s rules and make do with two minutes silence to commemorate Armistice Day.  However, seeing as the issue has been escalated we might as well get into the morality of it.

It is fairly widely accepted that the poppy is not a symbol of any sort of religion, so the only question remaining is whether it is a political symbol.  It is possible to argue that the fact that the banning of the poppy has caused such an uproar has made the discussion political in itself, but I feel that it is more of a political statement not to wear a poppy than to follow the crowd in wearing one. Think of the controversy that was sparked when James McClean refused to wear a poppy while playing for West Brom a couple of seasons ago.  That was interpreted as far more of a political statement than the hundreds of players across the English, Scottish, and nameless other league pyramids who did not take issue with wearing a poppy.  I’m sure there would have been no fuss whatsoever if nothing had been made of the fact that poppies were worn and the players of both teams had been allowed to go about their business as usual.  However, for me, the whole dilemma caused by the situation has led to the symbol being more political than ever.


credit Tiocfaidh ar la 1916

Before the debacle with FIFA I do not think there would have been many people who would call the poppy a political symbol – in fact few would even have considered it – but now we find ourselves considering whether or not it is.  The argument I can see for people calling it political is that the Poppy Appeal is generally seen as commemorating the British dead of both wars rather than all those who died.  Some might say that that is completely fair enough considering the match in question was between two British teams, but I can see how that could be taken as being disrespectful to the other nations of the world who were affected by the World Wars.  Even so, it is not as if the England and Scotland teams would be wearing poppies with the purpose of disrespecting other nations; if anything they would be wearing them to preach the importance of harmony between nations, though most footballers would be unlikely to even consider such philosophical matters on the eve of an international match.  In my opinion the fact that poppies could have political connotations do not mean that they would in the context of an England versus Scotland match at Wembley so I think FIFA are needlessly exacerbating the situation.

Even if we decide that poppies are a political statement, there is a clear argument that FIFA should have turned a blind eye to the displays at Wembley.  When you consider that the clamp down on the teams will discourage nations in future from wearing poppies, FIFA could be taking money from the Poppy Appeal’s future earnings.  Nine million people tuned in to watch the England versus Scotland match, many of whom will have donated to the Poppy Appeal by various methods.  All of those people will have witnessed the ceremony before kick off and will have been constantly reminded of the Appeal by the armbands worn by both sides, which I’m sure will have been a huge source of income for the Poppy Appeal.  Future teams being deterred from displaying support for the Appeal could lead to all the extra exposure that comes from live TV being lost, resulting in an inevitable loss of income.  When you consider that as well as the charity itself losing the money, FIFA will be gaining funds from the fines given to England and Scotland which makes it even worse because of the recent scandal surrounding world football’s governing body.  I think a main reason for public outcry is the way that FIFA are gaining money while the charity is losing out.  This is yet another reason why FIFA are wrong in my eyes to punish the FA and the SFA.


There is also a strong argument that there should never have been a debate in the first place over whether the teams should be allowed to wear poppies.  Realistically almost nobody is going to be affected by whether or not two international teams wear poppies, or indeed any political statement.  Therefore there is an argument that FIFA should not have a rule about what goes on football shirts.  Most people tune in to watch international football so that they can see the world’s elite take to the field and represent their countries at the highest level rather than to admire the design of the football shirts and consider their meanings.  The whole debate has been an unnecessary distraction and overshadowed the game itself, so FIFA should stay out of trivial matters such as kit design as much as possible.  However I do appreciate the need to monitor what goes on from a distance and step in in certain situations.  On the other hand this instance has caused a needless problem and has further disgraced football’s reputation in a time when we should be concentrating on what goes on on the pitch as much as possible.

For me, there is no question that both England and Scotland should have been allowed to wear poppies on their shirts for the match and it would have been interpreted as a respectful gesture by both sides.  However, I can see the argument that some people have put forward and appreciate that the issue now requires some debate.  The best thing that could have happened was if FIFA had not kicked up a fuss and the whole issue would have been forgotten at the end of the 90 minutes.  All that has ended up happening as a result of FIFA’s ruling is that people have yet again been sidetracked by off the field issues and FIFA has managed to further damage its reputation.  Hopefully they will back down and we can move on from the issue as soon as possible, but unfortunately I think we could see the debate being drawn out as the English and Scottish FA’s are punished and appeal the fines they are given.  The best course of action for FIFA now would be to donate whatever fines they take from the two FA’s to the Poppy Appeal but, given FIFA’s recent history, I’m not holding my breath.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Let us know in the comments below!

 featured image by Ronnie Macdonald