Student Voice: Does the poppy still have a place in British football?

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By Harry Spindler

Remembrance Sunday will always be a time to reflect on the horror of the Somme 100 years ago and to remember all those who have lost their lives in the name of the British people and in any war since.

A common sight around this time of year is the poppy. A small red badge for all to see that will help us remember all the lives lost in the First World War and the many wars since. Not only do we see people wearing them every day but we also see poppies sewn in to special kits for the football fixtures that fall around Remembrance Sunday.

Many agree this is a great tradition and shows solidarity, but is the gesture truly what we believe it to be? With the large influx of foreign players in our Premier Division and, especially recently, the Championship, do these players truly understand what the poppy stands for?

Roughly two years ago, James McClean refused to wear a poppy embroidered on his Wigan top during a Championship game. An outcry followed, many claiming that the young Northern Irishman had disrespected all those who had lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars. He should be sacked, he should never play again and other seemingly over-the-top reactions followed. Understandably, people were angry that someone could be so disrespectful and yet they weren’t thinking about what else the poppy represents. This connects to my problem with what the poppy has become in the Premier  League and English football.

The poppy doesn’t just represent those who have lost their lives in the two World Wars, it represents those who have lost their lives serving the British Armed Forces in every conflict Britain has been involved in since the end of the Second World War. One of the conflicts that we remember involves the Troubles which took play in Northern Ireland from the 1960s until the late 90s. In case any of you reading this need a quick rundown on what the Troubles were, it was an attempt by the IRA to claim control of the Ulster area for the Republic of Ireland and was to a large extent a guerrilla war. During the Troubles, the British forces were involved in a horrific slaughter of the Northern Irish people which became known as Bloody Sunday. After a non-violent protest against the planned internment by British forces refused to disband, the armed forces in the area proceeded to fire on the protesters, killing 14 and injuring several others.

This very event is McClean’s reasoning behind the refusal to wear the poppy. McClean’s argument, in short, is that one of the conflicts that our poppies stand to represent was behind an atrocity that is still haunting the people of Bogside near Londonderry. Should he be forced to wear something which he feels is a betrayal to his people? I believe that by this man not wearing the poppy, not only is he exercising his right to freedom of speech and belief, but he is remembering those who were affected by the wars we have been involved in. Similar to the way we wear the poppy to remember the loss of our own, he refuses to wear one to remember his own. Regardless of whether we believe this to be right or wrong, he has his reasoning and most likely knows far more about it than most of the people who have been mindlessly attacking him for his refusal.

We can see how furious McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy has left some of the population, but what should make you more angry? A man refusing to wear the poppy to stand up for what he believes in or a man who wears the poppy not knowing what he is representing?

The reason we look at each other on the streets and see someone with a poppy and think, “What a good gesture” is because we have made the conscientious decision to spend some of our money to acquire a poppy and are therefore proud to wear it on our chest. Let’s look at it from this point of view, though – imagine if it was compulsory to wear the poppy, does the gesture remain the same? Eventually, we get to a stage so far distant from what we were intending the gesture to stand for that we forget the point of the poppy altogether.

The point of that little idea? All players in the Premier League are obliged to wear the poppy unless they specifically ask otherwise, as in McClean’s case, but are they, therefore, wearing the poppy because they feel they are doing the right thing or because they couldn’t care whether they wear it or not? This is not to say that Diego Costa is secretly vandalising a war memorial and Robert Huth is humming the German anthem during the minute’s silence, but in fact is reminding those that were so angered by McClean actually having a reason to not wear the flower that they have in fact forgotten that the majority of these players in the Premier League most likely aren’t bothered by whether or not they wear the icon. We are outraged whenever a footballer with actual valid reasons not to wear the poppy doesn’t, but we wouldn’t dare stop a person in the street if their jumper or jacket is poppy-less. It has simply become an extra icon on the kit for most of these players, not necessarily the British ones. The poppy matters more to us as regular people than those who are representing our sides on the pitch.

This then leads to a far bigger question. Is the poppy really still what it was made to represent? This year, one of England’s World Cup qualifiers falls on Armistice Day, against their oldest rival, Scotland. A monumental occasion in which both FAs had felt that it would be an honour and their duty to wear poppies on their kits to represent those lost in conflict. A simple request to FIFA to ask if they had the go ahead has led to national outrage after the football governing body denied this right due to their stance on international sides wearing religious or political messages on their kits.

This rule is completely understandable. However, this now begs the question of whether or not the poppy is a political symbol. Anyone who knows their history understands that the poppy was chosen because of the opening line of the poem ‘In the Flanders Fields’ and is purely made to represent those who have lost their lives in the name of their country ever since that inconceivable loss of life. Surely, now that the government has become involved since FIFA’s denial of the use of the poppy, they have in turn made the poppy far more than what it was ever intended?

Now, in this situation, it has become this contorted argument for the British government against FIFA. No longer is it the right to remember those who we have lost but the way our MPs have reacted has created this pathetic idea that it is us against a group of bureaucratic millionaires. Sadly, I don’t believe we will be allowed to see the poppy used in this match and, with how the events have unfolded since our Prime Minister has become involved, I don’t believe we will ever see it involved on the international stage. We all know how stubborn FIFA can be when they are rivaled and now it will leave them increasingly annoyed that anyone dared to challenge their rules.

Harry Spindler is currently studying History and International Politics and has aspirations to be a journalist. He is a huge fan of football, rugby, ice hockey and basketball and is a keen supporter of the left wing. You can find more of his work online at spindlersdugout. & allonredharry.blogspot.

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