The time has come for football to start asking some difficult questions about remembrance

Monday marks Armistice Day, but you could be forgiven for thinking different if you attended a British football match over the past two weeks

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 11 November 2019 10:35
Boris Johnson lays wreath at Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday 2019

Today marks actual Armistice Day, but you could be forgiven for thinking different if you attended a British football match over the past two weeks.

You’d have already stood through a lot of “shows of respect”, that have drifted very far away from the idea of solemn remembrance.

At Arsenal last week, the entrance to the media room featured a metal outline of a World War One soldier, before you were “treated” to a huge white cake adorned with pastry poppies. The inside had red jam, in what feels a piece of rather under-considered symbolism. They were far from the only club to think that making these symbols of commemoration edible was appropriate.

It was outside the stadiums and on the pitches, however, where the most respect was shown. And by “most” we of course mean bigger, showier, more ostentatious, more spectacular.

Southampton had a huge flag featuring more and more poppies, getting bigger and bigger. Liverpool had a similar effect on their corner flags. Leicester City had a man dressed in black with a giant foam poppy for a face, just yards from an actual service jeep. Rangers have previously fired an actual cannon in the stadium.

You can think of any number of examples, but you’re by now probably thinking of one above all: that archive footage that did the rounds from Prenton Park of a man dressed as an actual poppy being led out onto the pitch. To really finish it off, "he" had oversized shoes more befitting a cartoon character, which is what this effectively was.

And it sums up how it’s really time to ask whether all this is actually befitting the occasion they’re all leaping over themselves to mark.

The football activities around Remembrance Weekend are genuinely difficult to satirise at this point, most of it a newspaper cartoon made flesh.

Overt commemoration has turned into unintentional comedy, at which point we should also be asking how we've got here, and what this is really all about. Because, for all the mirth about it, there lie some properly serious questions.

We’ve by now gone way past the relatively simplistic debate about whether you should choose to wear a poppy or not, and the focus should instead be on another choice: why exactly football has so embraced all this. What exactly is going on?

Why has football seen the need to go so massive on this, in such vulgar displays?

Why has the Royal British Legion been picked - above any other charity you care to mention - for such an elevated and over-promoted status?

Why do the broadcasters feel the need to make it so front and centre of their coverage?

How have the military become so embedded in football?

When did this properly start? How is it going to finish?

Who is benefiting, because it sometimes doesn’t seem it's the injured or aggrieved that are supposed to?

Who is making such decisions and what is the exact rationale for them?

How has a competition that revels in its internationalism as much as the Premier League so embraced what often feels a few shades from outright nationalism?

How have we got to the point where a much-admired modern club like Leicester City tweet out a video like this, where the line between lamenting the fallen and glorifying what they are ordered to do feels very blurred?

Because this is what the questions surrounding this date should really now be about.

How has the basic act of buying a poppy to commemorate the dead and maybe contribute a bit to the afflicted so given way to what often feels like glorification of the military?

This is all way beyond the dignified personal act of just wearing a poppy.

If it was really just about that and quiet remembrance, after all, it would be almost impossible to argue. But it patently isn’t.

If it was, we wouldn’t see the poppy itself so grotesquely caricatured by the people who purport to most care about it.

We might see more of a link to an anti-war charity, rather than one that can’t really be described as that.

We might see more uses of the phrase “never again”, something you don’t really see around this at all any more.

We wouldn’t see so many military displays. And we certainly wouldn’t see actual recruitment vans outside stadiums, as has been the case at Stoke City.

A poppy mascot outside the stadium at Leicester City

It is similarly telling that you only really seem to see these vans at football grounds in the country’s more economically deprived areas and not, say, at somewhere like the Emirates with its mostly middle-class support.

That is what is so disconcerting about it, and you don’t have to go too far back in history for parallels with the authorities exploiting the working class to fight their wars.

Some of the sights at Remembrance weekend make it difficult not to think this is all a more modern and sophisticated version of that, as well as a giant recruitment ad.

That the people’s game has so fully embraced this warrants scrutiny. God forbid you’re one of those people who has any kind of anti-military sentiment.

Many might point to that same history - and the tradition - as the very reason for such shows of remembrance in the first place, but it is actually a nonsense, and untrue.

Look back at a Premier League game a mere 15 years ago. There was none of this.

There was none of it at all in football for most of its existence.

It was literally only a decade ago that it became a part of the game, powered by a Daily Mail campaign that effectively browbeat clubs into adopting the poppy.

You don’t have to go too far to make links between the newspaper’s politics of the time and that.

Many on the left would meanwhile maintain that all of this is overtly political, and about softening the view of the military to offset public criticism of UK foreign policy - which is why it’s all the more important to ask why football has so unthinkingly embraced this.

But then this is all very different from just wearing a poppy.

It’s maybe something for the game to start properly thinking about, particularly during Monday’s moment’s silence.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments