BY DAN ROBERTS
The not so great man who used to run FIFA once said that ‘football and politics should not mix’. In fact he has said it over and over again, usually to justify his organisation’s reluctance to make a stand against unsavoury actions and nefarious bedfellows in the pursuit of cash. Where most would argue against such an obviously incorrect statement it could be said that the extent that the politics of war have encroached into football is a worrying trend.
Observers on this side of the pond are always very happy to mock the over the top celebrations of American life in all its guises so it comes as no surprise that this is extended to the patriotic displays at sporting events around Memorial Day, Veterans Day or any other day for that matter. That Major League Baseball sides run out onto the field in specially designed camouflage kits on Memorial Day weekend is seen as over the top – if not outright distasteful – by sanctimonious Brits who are always quick to point out the lack of humility and subtleness of their American counterparts. But when you consider the fact that Vanarama National League North side Alfreton Town will run out in a commemorative Armistice Day ‘poppy kit’ on two separate occasions during November, is it fair to say that this reverence and dignified commemoration has been turned into a more jingoistic tub-thumping glorification of the military? Or to put it another way – has it become exactly like the American experience we are quick to mock?
James McClean will once again come under the spotlight for his perfectly reasonable choice to not wear a poppy on his football shirt in the coming weeks. Forgetting the fact that until about ten years ago this ‘tradition’ was unheard of in British football, the West Bromwich Albion winger will no doubt have to endure hatred and vitriol from opposing fans as well as some from supporters that cheer him on for the rest of the year.
This feeling that football players are somehow degrading the country when they ply their trade choosing not to wear a Remembrance poppy on their shirt has seemingly become the norm. Anyone daring not to conform to this yearly ritual becomes a footballing pariah and quite simply the worst kind of individual in a sport. While at the same time fans will continue to support and rationalise racist, violent and abusive actions displayed by their heroes.
There has definitely been a swell in support for what could loosely be termed ‘patriotism’ when it comes to sport. I’ve no doubt that this feeling of pride in one’s country shown by football fans was always with us but it has become more and more evident that not conforming to this way of thinking is something to be attacked and shows ‘disrespect’. The possibility to decide to wear, or not to wear, a poppy has disappeared – at least for footballers.
There has also been an increase in the celebration of the military at England’s football grounds which is the natural progression of the entire poppy furore. Few would argue against complimentary tickets for war veterans and those who have fought and defended this country. But surely a football ground is not the arena for a military show. Having military personnel lead out players on to the pitch could be seen as akin to the Soviet-era propaganda displays of military might through sporting achievements.
Something more worrying has been commented on in the United States where the immense popularity of the NFL has been used as a tool for military recruitment rather than merely a way to respect the nation’s heroes. With increasingly stronger links between the military and sports teams, what could be seen as simply an over the top way to celebrate one’s country and those who defend it, has now become an effective marketing tool for signing up new recruits. This comes at a massive cost for the American military and there have also been questions raised about the agenda of the sporting bodies. Is this supposed support for the troops simply a very effective marketing opportunity that does more to disrespect those who have fought and died for their country than honour them?
Another thing to think about is that if this fetishisation of the military continues in this country as it has in the United States, what happens with legitimate concerns about entering into specific wars? Let alone ideas of pacifism. For those who are anti-war in all its guises, wearing a poppy is already a moral question. It is not a case of ‘hating your own country’ but they may find that that is the way their decision is greeted if the abuse James McClean suffers is anything to go by.
With the jump from remembrance, to patriotic duty, to jingoism, when it comes to the simple act of wearing an Armistice poppy, what happens if the military displays at America’s sporting events become the norm in his country too? Can you be anti-war but still cheer on a sports team who have chosen to incorporate military camouflage into their kit?
Every football player should have the right to choose not to wear a poppy on their shirt in the second week of November. They should also have the right not to be vilified for that decision – especially if they are eloquent enough to explain the reasons behind their decision. This is evidently not the case at the moment and that should be something that the FA and Premier League should look into as strongly as any other contentious issue.
But the problem will only grow if they continue to cosy up to the military marketing machine in the same way as sports clubs have done in America. Then it will be even harder for an objective voice on the issue to be heard over the rallying cries and Spitfire flyovers.