James Lawton: Fifa's U-turn is complete poppycock


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The Independent Online

Just when it seemed they were right, they got it wrong. But then we are talking about Fifa, buckling last night under a populist yelp from Downing Street.

When David Cameron weighed in, the world game's governing body found itself unable to resist a shrill campaign to have every man, woman and child – including the footballers of England who meet Spain at Wembley on Saturday – wearing poppies this Remembrance weekend.

It was not, of course, the wearing of the poppies that was anyone's problem.

This, after all, is a time-honoured mark of respect for the fallen of two world wars and if a young star footballer like Jack Wilshere, who reminds us of the combination of his thrilling talent and extreme youth by pointing out that his great-grandfather fought in the Second World War, thinks it is a good idea, so much the better. However, this is not quite the same as being told that we must wear a poppy – and that our national football team should have poppies woven into their shirts. No, this is a rough kind of social vigilantism. This is to be told how to think, how to act, and the need was for it to be tossed into the nearest rubbish bin.

The inherent hysteria of the campaign to have Fifa scrap its prohibition on any kind of invasion of the "neutrality of football" was exposed utterly in the statement of the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson.

Robertson said: "We fully understand and respect Fifa's rules on its member nations not adorning their shirts with commercial, political or religious symbols or messages. However, the British public feels very strongly about this issue, which is seen as an act of natural remembrance. It is not religious or political in any way. Wearing a poppy is a display of national pride, just like wearing your country's football shirt."

Fine, but then what happens when another nation, with its own idea of what constitutes righteous national pride, decides it feels strongly about a certain issue, and the thing it wants to commemorate is, for a jaundiced neighbour, the recalling of some shameful political or military horror? We don't have the time to go through all the potential examples of what can happen when an unflawed policy such as Fifa's is compromised by one overwrought load of special pleading.

As Fifa at first pointed out, those who wanted to recognise the war dead, who had a need for some of Remembrance Sunday to be enacted on the football Saturday night, had that chance in a minute's silence before the start of the Wembley game.

But according to the campaign which we are told has "caught the mood of the nation" – and presumably this provoked the Prime Minister's intervention – this was not nearly good enough. The poppy must be worn if the nation was not to fail its heroes and heroines.

"Let us Honour our Heroes," says the campaign which also picks out prominently the tweet of Wilshere: "England team should wear poppies on Saturday. It's the national tradition and it would be disrespectful not to. My Great Grandad fought for this country in WW2 and I'm sure a lot of people's grandparents did so. ENGLISHANDPROUD - WearThePoppy."

Yes, of course, Jack is right but here's a remarkable thing. When the fighting was over and the survivors came home and the football grounds were filled to the rafters by men in demob suits, there wasn't a whole lot of talk about remembering the war – or wearing poppies. Maybe it was assumed that they had fought for a society which would always recognise sacrifice, always remember the values that made the nation's life – and that their greatest victory was over anyone who might want to tell us how to feel and how to think.