For countries of the British Commonwealth, last Friday was Remembrance Day, nee Armistice Day. Remembrance Day has been associated with the poppy since shortly after World War I, and the poppy has become an important fund-raising item for the Royal British Legion, the organization of British war veterans. The Legion organizes a huge charity campaign every October in which people who make a donation are given artificial poppies to wear. The Wearing of the Poppies has become something of a free-standing tradition, as prominent people cannot be seen without a poppy in the week prior to Remembrance Day. (The poppies were initially made by veterans; now they are made in China, while a domestic market for custom poppies has emerged.)
This year, with Remembrance Day falling on the portentous 11/11/11, sports and politics came together, with predictable results. England was scheduled by the Masters of the Football Universe (FIFA) to play Spain in a tune-up for the second most important soccer tournament in the world, the 2012 Euros. The game was to be played in London’s iconic Wembley Stadium on Saturday, the day after Remembrance Day. So the English Football Association asked FIFA for permission to stitch poppies onto the English jerseys, as the professional English clubs had been doing the previous week. FIFA said . . . “No.”
FIFA has an admittedly sensible rule that players are not allowed to wear political slogans (or religious symbols or advertising) on their uniforms, and FIFA decreed that the poppy was a political symbol.
Outrage ensued in England, of course. Tensions built as FIFA satrap Sepp Blatter handled the situation in his typically ham-handed and obfuscatory way. Finally, Prince William intervened to exert royal pressure, triggering a compromise in which FIFA agreed to allow the players to wear a black armband with a small poppy on it. Players on both teams wore black armbands, with England’s graced by the poppy.
Was this a principled resolution addressing both sides’ interests, or merely an expedient compromise? The problem is that the poppy is an ambiguous symbol. Is it an apolitical recognition of lives lost, or a commemoration of those who died fighting for the Allied cause in World Wars I & II (not to mention in Afghanistan)? If perceived by at least some people to be the latter, what precedent does this set? If England players are permitted to wear the poppy, will Armenians seek to wear a khatchkar in recognition of the Armenian genocide? How will those decisions be made?
FIFA is so tainted by corruption and self-dealing that it has very little credibility, so its initial decision not to allow the poppy was immediately suspect. And it was a mistake on all sides not to see this issue coming and address it out of the media spotlight. In the end, the outcome seemed acceptable to all the major players. But this may be a case in which the negotiated outcome–the compromise–does not really serve the parties’ interests in the long run. Symbols are powerful. So are precedents.