Poppy row overshadows ‘Battle of Britain’

Two minute’s silence: Young fans remember during Swansea’s match with Arsenal in 2015.

England face Scotland tonight on Armistice Day. FIFA rules that national teams cannot wear ‘political symbols’ but both teams are defying them by wearing poppies. Are poppies political?

In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below.

John McCrae, a Canadian Lieutenant Colonel, wrote these words in memory of his friend Alexis Helmer, one of the 700,000 British army soldiers to die in the first world war. His words inspired the tradition of wearing a poppy around Remembrance Sunday, in memory of those who died then and in wars since.

Ninety-eight years to the day after the guns fell silent, England play Scotland in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley, the first time the two have met in a competitive match since 1999. Both teams planned to wear shirts with poppies on them. But FIFA stepped in: their rules state that political symbols cannot be worn on national teams’ shirts. The poppy, they say, is political.

The ruling prompted an outcry. A veteran of the Falklands war asked The Daily Mail: ‘Who are FIFA? A bunch of people who make a lot of money and treat people like cattle. How dare they?’ In the end both football associations have decided their teams will wear armbands with poppies on them, as FIFA does not have a ruling on armbands.

Poppies regularly spark disputes. In 2006, Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow attacked ‘poppy fascism’. Military-obsessed nationalists, he said, had created a climate where those not wearing one were seen as traitors. Political aides often talk of hurriedly pinning poppies on their bosses before they go on television.

Then there is James McClean, a winger for West Bromwich Albion. A Northern Irish Catholic, he grew up on a Londonderry estate where six people were killed on Bloody Sunday. He has refused to wear the symbol ever since breaking through as a player in 2012. McClean regularly receives sectarian abuse because of his stance.

The poppy means different things to different people: for some it is a warning against war — ‘never again’. For others it is a simple contemplation of sacrifice and bravery. Is it really any more than that?

Poppy pressure

Of course the poppy is not political, say many. It is obtuse of FIFA to treat wearing a poppy the same as wearing shirts explicitly supporting a political party. It is a symbol of remembrance for British lives lost, not in one particular war, but in every war. That should not be a divisive political stance.

War is political, and therefore poppies are too. For some, armistice day has become an annual parade of chest-thumping patriotism with overtly political connotations. This war cult has duped us into supporting the flawed foreign interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Remembering the dead should be a private matter.

You Decide

  1. Do you see the poppy as a political symbol?
  2. Is it wrong not to wear a poppy?


  1. Come up with your own Remembrance Day symbol.
  2. The UK has hundreds of war memorials, with one in almost every town and village. Research another country where commemoration of those who died in war is an important part of the national culture.

Some People Say...

“A national flag is a political symbol.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about this?
Well for one thing, it is likely that some of your ancestors have died in war. Had you been 17 or 18 a century ago, you would have been joining up to go and risk your life. It is important that we remember those who died, both to warn against unnecessary wars and to express admiration for their sacrifices.
Does football have a history of political symbols?
Oh yes. The Old Firm derby in Glasgow is awash with Northern Ireland-related politics, with Celtic displaying Irish symbols and Rangers displaying British ones. Fans of Lazio, an Italian club with far-right tendencies, sometimes give fascist salutes at matches. And Socrates, the great Brazil player from the 1980s, wore headbands with slogans protesting against his country’s military dictatorship at the time.

Word Watch

That figure includes all British Empire soldiers. It is 11% of the total who went to fight. In the second world war 383,000 died.
Remembrance Sunday
Marked on the second Sunday in November — the nearest to Armistice Day, which is on November 11th.
England play Scotland
The two sides met in the first ever international football match — a 0–0 draw in Glasgow in 1872. Since then they have met 112 times, with England winning 47, Scotland 24, and 41 draws.
Falklands war
In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland islands — British territory in the southern Atlantic. Britain sent naval forces to reclaim the islands. The war killed 649 Argentines, 255 British troops and three islanders.
The second city of Northern Ireland. Its name is controversial: Northern Irish unionists call it Londonderry, which is the official name, but Irish nationalists call it Derry.
Bloody Sunday
When British soldiers shot 14 unarmed civilian protesters in the Bogside area of Londonderry. It was one of the most significant events of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

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