In the run up to England’s win against Scotland last night, the major talking point was not the history of the tie, but Fifa’s refusal to allow either team to wear a poppy on their shirt or armband.
Fifa reminded both nations that its regulations do not permit teams to wear “political, religious or commercial” messages on the pitch. The English and Scottish FA refused to back down from its stance and believes the poppy does not contravene Fifa’s policy. In the face of a potential points penalty or fine, the FA has received legal guidance supporting its position. Theresa May reflected public opinion when she said Fifa’s ban was “utterly outrageous” and suggested that, “before they start telling us what to do, they [Fifa] jolly well ought to sort their own house out”.
While Fifa continues to be widely derided, on this issue the world body deserves a fairer hearing. No organisation will ever gain popularity by preventing a country from paying tribute to the sacrifice of those who have died to protect national security. However, Fifa’s determination to establish a blanket ban on such symbols (admittedly a little late considering the Easter Rising commemoration adopted by the Republic of Ireland in March), simplifies the issue for all 211 Fifa member nations.
Imagine, for example, if Serbia chose to remember its war dead in a way it considered not to be “political, religious or commercial”, but honoured them in a match against Albania, with whom fraught historical tensions still simmer. Regardless of Serbia’s protestations, the action would undoubtedly be perceived as political by Albanians, and in a fixture which has previously been subject to riots, the last thing any future fixture needs is heightened emotions.
Fifa’s ban may appal many of us who believe remembering the dead is hugely important. Yet the organisation are not suggesting England and Scotland can’t do that, just that the nations should find alternative ways of doing so to avoid setting a precedent that would pose a threat to the sport in future. Northern Ireland chose to wear plain black armbands for their match against Azerbaijan and Wales will do the same in their match. Next year England and Scotland should follow suit.