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9 November 2018updated 08 Aug 2021 3:46am

Footballers have a right to dissent from the poppy narrative

Nemanja Matic and James McClean have received different treatment at the hands of fans. 

By Kelly Welles

Spare a thought for football fans. We’ve just emerged relatively unscathed from Halloween – a bonus in a sport never more than 30 seconds away from a cultural “misunderstanding” – only to be plunged face first into the annual poppy debate. 

And the players reckon they need a winter break.

While not an issue confined to football, the poppy debate has been honed to a sharp point in a game defined by division, and nationalistic by default. The bickering began in 2011, when the FA’s request for England players to be allowed to wear embroidered poppies on their shirts during a fixture vs. Spain was turned down by Fifa. The laws at the time stated that shirts should not carry political, religious or commercial messages. The law was eventually overturned by Fifa in 2017, but not before England had been fined for defying it. 

In November 2012, Derry-born, Republic of Ireland and Sunderland player James McClean, made headlines after playing for his club without the embroidered poppy on his shirt. It was reported that McClean wasn’t allowed to make statement about his decision by Sunderland. Speculation as to his reasoning ensued and he became the unwilling poster boy for political dissent in football. Every year, around this time, football commentators, writers and fans roll their eyes and the James McClean-kicking festival opens. This week, we received news that McClean’s wife has received death threats and “abusive packages” have been sent to him at Stoke City’s (his current club) training ground.

Over the last six years, it feels like this issue has become less about Remembrance and respecting those who served and more about abusing people who choose to dissent from The Narrative.

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And while this isn’t just a story about football, in 2018, elite football is the story. Especially the Premier League. Propagated by the mainstream media, disseminated via phone ins, podcasts and social media, football is a comic book universe of its own, spinning on an axis of Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce gifs and hot, hot takes. 

To the untrained eye, non-conformism isn’t tolerated. It is verbally abused by its own fans, opposition fans and anyone with a social media account. Not wearing a poppy is the most egregious of these offences, with fans tripping over themselves to point out the act is indicative of an intolerable lack of respect for the war dead, which in turn justifies abuse of the individual concerned.

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But it’s not that simple. Serbia and Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic had barely stepped out of the tunnel at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium on Saturday before photos began pinging around Twitter of his poppy-less shirt. Twitter set about dismantling him before kick off, “he should never play for United again” being one of the more popular refrains. On Tuesday, presumably as a response to the localised furore being picked up by the national media, Matic issued a statement confirming his respect for the poppy and those who served. According to his Instagram post, the decision not to wear one was entirely based in his personal experiences as a child during a Nato bombing campaign on the town of Vrelo. 

Oddly, Matic’s statement quelled the hysteria. It may flare up again during the Manchester derby at the weekend, but curiously, given the heat of this debate, most fans seem to have accepted his reasons and moved on. So why is James McClean still receiving hate parcels?

Yes, McClean’s pride in his nationality is closer to home than Matic’s, and informed by the personal experiences of many fans in a way that Matic’s is not, but football is rarely so sensitive to nuance. It’s far more likely that Matic’s statement was accepted because of its tone – far less confrontational than McClean’s and arguably more conscious of the fan’s sensibilities.

I’m sure that those who fought and died for our freedom would appreciate that the vast majority of football fans engage with and respect players for the decisions they make. But while our community boasts a vocal minority that thinks it’s acceptable to send bomb threats to players because they decide not to wear a shirt with an embroidered flower on it, I’m not sure we have the right to demand for respect from anyone.