Fifa’s decision to refuse a joint request from the FA and SFA to allow England and Scotland to wear poppies on black armbands when the two sides meet at Wembley next week has attracted a predictable and tiresome stream of public outrage.
Fifa-bashing is in vogue. Understandable, perhaps, in the wake of the most tumultuous period in the organisation’s history, but in 2016 every decision made in football administration is open to scorn and scrutiny.
On the face of it, Fifa are being obstructive and blind to what is ultimately a sustained period of remembrance across the nation. That the fixture falls on Armistice Day adds a layer of urgency and perceived legitimacy to the situation and perhaps this might ultimately allow Fifa the wiggle room to make a one-off exception as the clock ticks down towards kick-off next Friday.
Fifa general secretary Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura is not unreasonable in pointing out that no nation would be allowed to pay tribute in such a way. “Britain is not the only country that has been suffering from the result of war” she told BBC Sport on Wednesday afternoon. Fifa’s internal bylaws make it clear that they see themselves as insulated from external political and religious forces.
Why have the FA waited so long to stand up against what they clearly see as an unfair and restrictive rule? Tribute has been paid to the fallen heroes of war for nearly a century, yet the ire in the media over Fifa’s long established standpoint gives off an unfortunate smell of point scoring and virtue signalling, and it’s a facet of this fortnight that has grown in recent years as tributes have become better planned and more prolonged.
Over the last decade, the English domestic season of remembrance has become inescapably machine pressed and packaged — ever since players started wearing custom kits with printed poppies on the breastbone in 2009 the permanence of the tribute has meant a loss of authenticity.
The poppies on shirts have grown rapidly in size. When Chelsea played Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in November 2009, the flowers were less than half the size of those currently adorning the shirts for the 2016-17 season. It’s difficult to fully appreciate why – if the spirit of the season is all about the mind – the size of the tribute has become so important.
What are the tangible benefits of not merely observing a minute’s silence before the start of a match – a tradition that has endured for decades — but also wearing the tribute kits? Can the Royal British Legion prove a link between increased exposure to Sky’s football watching audience and larger numbers of poppies purchased and donations made?
Fifa’s standpoint is reflective of this bemusement. What would the response be if both the FA and SFA were told that the only way to grant this request would be if they used the plastic poppies and safety pins adorned by the general public? It’s difficult to envisage either side accepting the logistical or performance impact of charging around the Wembley turf with 22 pieces of card and plastic at their feet.
Club staff of the Nineties would have been appalled at the idea of printing new shirts for the sake of perhaps one game of football, however in a world where Paul Pogba is understood to be worth £89 million, the economics of such a decision is no longer a factor for cash strapped clubs.
But economics does remain a factor for the average supporter. I’m not sure that the six-year-old Everton fan watching his first game with family against West Ham at Goodison Park last Sunday would have understood why his newly purchased club shirt doesn’t carry a poppy. Will he have begged his parents to ensure that his £50 purchase look exactly like that of his heroes? Will the club shop do this for the boy’s exasperated parents, and at what cost?
The risk we run by turning Remembrance Day into a marketing entity is that it becomes akin to a holiday – something to sit naturally between Halloween and the run up to Christmas — with the message of the actual tribute shrinking as the flowers on the shirts get bigger. It’s this England and Scotland should consider during their poppy-less minute of silence at Wembley next week.