FIFA lose the Poppy plot. Time for them to have some ‘respect’ rehab?


By Andrew Warshaw

December 19 – The reaction has been understandably incredulous. In a disgraceful move that hardly enhances its attempt to turn over a new leaf and become a respectful, compassionate, modern-thinking organisation, FIFA have once again shown their true colours by predictably fining all four British home nations for their various poppy displays at last month’s World Cup qualifiers on or around Armistice Day.

England and Scotland players wore armbands featuring the poppy symbol when they met on November 11 as a traditional act of remembrance. Wales and Northern Ireland’s respective games featured displays on the pitch or in the stands to mark the event.

FIFA rules forbid players from wearing anything that can be perceived as a political or religious statement and has clearly deemed that wearing poppies to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in all conflicts from World War 1 onwards constitutes a breach of the rules.

Really? Dubious at best.

England’s Football Association can more than afford to pay the fine of CHF 45,000 imposed for various incidents “including the display by the host association, the English team and spectators of a political symbol” as well as spectator misconduct. But it has announced it will appeal on principle. Scotland and Wales, each fined CHF 20,000, have yet to decide, likewise  Northern Ireland who were fined CHF 15,000.

In a less than convincing attempt to justify the uncharitable sanctions, Claudio Sulser, head of FIFA’s disciplinary committee, said: “It is not our intention to judge or question specific commemorations as we fully respect the significance of such moments in the respective countries, each one of them with its own history and background.

“However, keeping in mind that the rules need to be applied in a neutral and fair manner across FIFA’s 211-member associations, the display, among others, of any political or religious symbol is strictly prohibited.

“In the stadium and on the pitch, there is only room for sport, nothing else.”

Reacting to those comments, the English FA tweeted: “We note the decision by the FIFA disciplinary committee which we intend to appeal. As a first step we have written to FIFA requesting the grounds for the decision.”

British Sports Minister Crouch, with thinly veiled anger, went further.  “It is disappointing that FIFA has not recognised the sentiment of the poppy, which is not a political symbol.  Poppies are a poignant tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of our servicemen and women, and footballers and fans alike should be able to wear them with pride,” she said.

Scottish FA  chief executive Stewart Regan said it was “clearly disappointing” that FIFA ruled deemed wearing a remembrance poppy as a political symbol but the two smaller British federations must be spitting even more blood.

In contrast to England and Scotland who defied FIFA’s request not to display poppies and for fear of incurring sanctions, both the Welsh and Northern Irish federations deliberately decided against their players wearing the same symbol, instead opting for plain black armbands.

Yet they too have been punished, in Wales case seemingly after fans freely exercised their right to wear poppies to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice while members of the armed services appeared on the pitch against Serbia in a tribute ceremony while holding poppy wreaths. In Northern Ireland’s case, the punishment appears to be for holding a minute’s silence, the laying of a wreath and a similar poppy display by fans before the game against Azerbaijan.

All that, for FIFA, breached the letter of the law. How petty. How insensitive.

And note this. Back in 2011, FIFA agreed that the England, Scotland and Wales teams could wear poppies on black armbands during November internationals. England wore them during a 1-0 friendly win over Spain, Scotland did so in a match against Cyprus and Wales wore them against Norway.

Yet now, under the regime of new president Gianni Infantino,  FIFA indicated before the latest November matches that  they could punish teams for breaking the rules. That, in turn, led to UK Prime Minister Theresa May describing FIFA’s stance as ”outrageous”.

Chew on this too. The sanction imposed on the English FA was more than the latest fine, albeit along with a stadium ban, meted out to Chile after repeated incidents of homophobic chanting.

More, too, than Poland, Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Panama, Mexico and Venezuela being hit in the pocket for “various incidents involving unsporting conduct by fans, including homophobic chants in some instances”.  Where is the proportionality FIFA so frequently bangs on about?

This is not about British patriotism. Indeed, this website has frequently argued against decisions taken by British football’s various administrative organs when justified.

This is about freedom of expression – non-political expression. This is also about respect, dignity and human decency. For their part, there is a strong will within the English FA to seek redress. They may even go all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

As own goals go from FIFA, they don’t come much more uncaring. Though perhaps we should not be too surprised…

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