I hate it when football meets politics. It’s all wrong: like as a teenager when you brought your friends home and they had to have that awful obligatory few moments of polite interaction with your parents, and your dad inevitably tries to prove he’s capable of holding his own in such youthful company. It just doesn’t work: the unfortunate truth is that most famous footballers are famous footballers because they didn’t grow up in families with any academic aspiration, and therefore are inclined to think proportional representation is a drawing of a well-endowed young lady; and politicians, well, the jokes about left wing are too obvious, and David Mellor inadvertently showed the world the risk of one being snapped in a football shirt.
Unfortunately though, due to the public profile of both, there are occasions when those in elected office choose to pop on a pair of shinguards and charge headlong into a metaphorical melée, often when it is both ill-advised and unnecessary. This week’s example was the invasion of a perfectly normal disagreement between the FA and FIFA by the Prime Minister. For anyone reading this who is somehow unaware of this story, the FA requested permission from FIFA to embroider poppies onto the England kit for the forthcoming friendly game against Spain. FIFA dismissed the request, referring to the rule stating that kits may not portray political, religious or commercial symbols or slogans. This got the miles of press coverage that one might expect, and subsequently a question was put to said Prime Minister during Wednesday afternoon’s Questions. Mr Cameron called the decision absurd, pointing out that the poppy is not a political symbol, but one of pride in our armed forces.
This seems to have been interpreted by many public commentators, and therefore many members of the general public (judging by the very scientific method of overhearing the odd news broadcast or phone-in) as national pride, thereby unwittingly confirming that FIFA’s decision is absolutely correct. National pride, lest we forget, is exactly the reason most wars begin; or, perhaps more accurately, the exploitation of national pride by political, religious or aristocratic leaders to extend or defend national or imperial boundaries. Certainly the two wars most closely associated with the poppy were prime examples of this, and although this country was the provocateur in neither case, national pride was used ruthlessly in at least the First World War to recruit oblivious young men to discard their lives on the muzzles of breathtakingly reckless strategies.
Cameron’s reference to pride in our armed forces stops short of this misconstrued definition, and I believe his view is the one held by the majority; but the point is not what the symbol is intended to mean, but what it comes to represent, however distorted that may be from the original intent. The St George’s cross is an example a little further along a simialr spectrum: this is intended as a symbol of national pride, but became tainted with xenophobia and racism, to this date never fully recovering. However unfortunate it may be, that a significant body of the British populace considers the poppy a symbol of national pride renders it a political symbol, whether that is the intent or not, and therefore FIFA are not misinterpreting their own rules in declining to permit its temporary addition to the England shirt.
Of course, the fact that national flags are the most obvious and pertinent of political symbols and are under no such restriction is a clear inconsistency. Consider Libya, where the all-green flag was in fact introduced by Gaddafi, and in his permanently extended absence has been quickly replaced. Consider Israel, which incorporates a religious symbol into its flag. FIFA have not applied their own rule incorrectly in the case of the poppy; it is the rule which is fundamentally flawed, and FIFA may find themselves at the centre of a rather larger can of worms than they’ve faced this week if they do not review this policy. While commercial interests can be controlled (assuming you ignore the kit manufacturer of course), FIFA is not an authoritative arbiter of political or religious matters and should not put itself in the firing line of such sensitive issues.
My personal view on the symbolism of the poppy differs to both of the above positions. I feel no particular pride in those people who volunteer to undertake military duties. I do wish them good fortune and hope they return undamaged, and I recognise the risk they put themselves under, but in this country and in these times there is no conscription; service personnel choose the military as a career. I feel no particular pride even in those people who were conscripted when such measures were a necessity; they had no choice. I feel no pride for those who volunteered during the very war which engendered the poppy symbol, as they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for, seduced by a campaign of propaganda and misinformation that would simply not be possible today. In all of these cases, what I feel is compassion, sympathy, pity, and horror at the continuing atrocities that humankind commits against itself in the struggle to prevail at the expense of those who don’t happen to share a particular geographical, ideological, linguistic or physical characteristic.
The poppy is, to me, a warning: a reminder of the potential perils of allowing the ambitions or delusions of a few to dictate the destiny of the many. It is a way of helping ensure that, as each passing generation increases the detachment of now from then, the horrors of Passchendaele, Ypres and the Somme are never forgotten and never repeated. It is a gesture, akin to the daffodil and the pink ribbon, of recognition of the suffering endured by those afflicted.
It is, ultimately, a symbol of humanity. I have worn it this week and will do so every year – religiously, one might say…
No recipe this time; it didn’t seem appropriate somehow. A restaurant review will follow at a respectful distance.