Should Footballers Be Forced to Wear a Poppy?

Like all public figures, footballers face huge pressure to wear a poppy for Remembrance Day. But does this undeniably political symbol have a place in the sport?

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Nov 6 2015, 12:07pm

This time of year that awkward no-man's land between Halloween and Christmas, just after Guy Fawkes Night – is distinguished by a few things: sodden buckets of used sparklers, fusty pumpkins, and poppies. The poppies in particular are everywhere, including prominently on the shirts of every Premier League team you'll see this weekend.

Remembrance Day will be marked nationwide by a two-minute silence at 11am this Sunday, but also by countless English football clubs the day before – and the week before, too. This season, red poppies appeared on Premier League shirts a full eight days before Remembrance Sunday, as if waiting any longer would be disrespectful.

But do poppies have any real place on the chests of football players? If Remembrance Day is regarded as a point of political contention – recently inflamed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's decision not to sing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain memorial service – then why is it observed by a sport which actively seeks to discourage political engagement?

In fact, FIFA is so keen to distance the sport from politicking that their grand rulebook includes a regulation prohibiting the communication of commercial, religious or political messages on football shirts. Players are even restricted from lifting their shirts to reveal personal slogans or messages, so unequivocal is FIFA's stance on the issue.

So why are poppies – by most definitions a political symbol – any different?

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Not too long ago they weren't, and FIFA regulations restricted teams from wearing poppies. In 2011 England were banned from adding the symbol to their shirts for a friendly match against Spain, with Prince William even writing to world football's governing body in an attempt to overturn the decision.

Such sentiment was echoed by FIFA's own vice-president, Jim Boyce, who called for "common sense" to prevail, adding, "I don't think it would offend anybody to have a poppy on the shirts." The ban was ultimately lifted, but in an area of increasingly twitchy discourse, Boyce's message seems remarkably out of touch, given that plenty of people do object to the appearance of poppies on shirts – James McClean being one such person.

The West Brom winger has become the embodiment of the poppies-in-football debate in recent years by categorically refusing to wear one on his shirt, despite the perennial campaign protesting that he should be forced to do so. His detractors claim that by appearing on a Premier League pitch around the time of Remembrance Sunday without a little red flower emblazoned on his chest, he is openly disrespecting those who died fighting for the British armed forces. Some even claim that he is siding with the IRA.

McClean (right, no poppy) and his West Brom teammate Claudio Jacob (left, with poppy) last weekend | PA Images

But if anyone has reasons not to wear a poppy it's McClean, who hails from Derry, where 14 unarmed civilians were killed by the British military on Bloody Sunday. The player himself has sought to explain his decision by speaking to the West Brom official programme.

"If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I'd wear it without a problem," said McClean.

"I would wear it every day of the year if that was the thing it stands for but it doesn't, it stands for all the conflicts that Britain has been involved in. Because of the history where I come from in Derry, I cannot wear something that represents that."

McClean also wrote an open letter to Wigan Athletic supporters and owner Dave Whelan when he was a player there, again giving very legitimate reasons for not wearing the poppy. And yet around this time of year McClean is roundly booed at every stadium he visits – and not just by opposition supporters.

Some fans of other clubs oppose football's mass observation of Remembrance Day rituals, too. Celtic supporters – aware of the club's Irish heritage – have long debated the suitability of poppies on their team's green and white jerseys, with one particular group protesting the "blood-stained poppy on our hoops." Last year two fans were also arrested for disturbing a minute's silence before a match against Aberdeen.

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In the latter case a line was likely crossed, but football's illiberal position is generally reflective of society's as a whole when it comes to poppies and Remembrance Day. Sky News provided the perfect depiction of the poppy debate's dynamic, hosting a two-way discussion on the issue with the tagline 'should public figures be forced to wear poppies?' On the left side of the split-screen was a politician representing 'Yes' and on the right side an activist making the case for 'No' – both wearing poppies. Even those who take the side of free choice don't dare appear without a poppy.

To give further examples of poppy fascism: Sienna Miller's decision not to wear one on last week's episode of the Graham Norton Show was highlighted by pretty much every tabloid newspaper; David Cameron's office felt the need to photoshop a comically oversized poppy on to the Prime Minister's lapel when a picture of him was spotted without one; and even when Andy Murray had one stitched into his kit at the Paris Masters this week, some complained that his accompanying Facebook post had only paid tribute to serving armed forces.

In a public sphere now dictated by faux outrage and sensationalist fury, reasoned discourse is the folly of fools. Anyone who voices an opinion to the contrary is usually shouted down by those who can make the most noice, or a meme contrasting the wages of a soldier and a Premier League footballer. It's a principled argument, but one supported by principles without sound basis.

Those who wish to pin a poppy should be able to do so, just like those who don't should be free to abstain. But, as is always the case, any player who refuses to wear a poppy this weekend will be the focus of much ire and venom – and probably a few Daily Mail headlines as well. McClean, as has been the case for the past few years, will become a pantomime villain a good few weeks before the season of "he's behind you" begins. Poppies might not belong in football, but you can certainly count on them being found there.

@grahamruthven

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