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Is it time for football to extradite itself from the poppy?

In the past decade, Premier League football has moved away considerably from the realism of British society. Transfer fees, ticket prices, wages, and television deals have all raised expediently. Meanwhile, its fans have suffered through austerity, zero-hours contracts, and food banks; struggling to earn the same wage as they did ten years ago.

Simultaneously, British politics has been submerged in tumultuary; spawning division and passionate debate. However, football has separated itself from this political wrangling, providing an escape, albeit a small one, from the endless debates about Brexit, welfare cuts and immigration.

This no-tolerance to political sentiments in football was hardened by the Premier League in 2014. They issued a statement warning and reiterating the rules whilst on the pitch. It stated that they would “apply ‘FIFA’s rules which cover player equipment and include the banning of political messages.”

Earlier this year, this stance was put into practice. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was reprimanded for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of those imprisoned during the disputed Catalan independence referendum and subsequent demonstrations. He received repeated warnings, followed by a £20,000 fine.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a notable exception to this rule, and that is the poppy. The iconography of red poppies have become commonplace in football, and it is to the determent of the game.

In 2016, FIFA fined the home nations for displays “of a political symbol” (in reference to the poppy). This hardline was relaxed a year later, subsequent to heavy pressure from influential actors; including the involvement of the British government.

But FIFA was right, the poppy is undoubtedly a political symbol. Those who argue it isn’t will say it’s purely to honour those who died in service of their country. However, the service they were providing was an execution of orders that come from political machinations. As the excellent John Nicholson stated in his article on this issue last year – “if war isn’t political, then what is?”

The iconography and culture of the poppy are now all-encompassing. A flash of red at this time of year is inescapable on television, in newspapers, and on social media. To say, in the current contemporary climate that the poppy is simply a symbol of remembrance is a falsehood.

An increasing number of TV personalities, commentators and ex-service personnel are refusing to wear a poppy. They believe it now glorifies war and has come to represent the intolerance of the far right; with poppy fascism now common-place.

Even Fantasy Premier League has now put poppies on the display of player’s shirts on their website. Good job James McClean isn’t playing in the Premier League this season.

Regarding McClean, he has faced deplorable abuse over the display, or the absence in his case, of the poppy. For a choice that is his own and should be respected. Neil Lennon spoke very eloquently of the abuse he suffered after he was struck by a coin in last week’s Edinburgh derby – “You call it sectarianism here in Scotland, I call it racism. If a black man is abused, you are not just abusing the colour of his skin, you are abusing his culture, his heritage, his background. It’s the exact same when I get called a Fenian, a pauper, a beggar, a tarrier. These people with a sense of entitlement or superiority complex. And all I do is stand up for myself.”

The one area Lennon did get it wrong was that this was exclusively a societal issue in Scotland. He said, “I had a career in England unblemished by all this stuff. I had two years at Bolton – no abuse, no attacks, no suspensions”.

However, the language Lennon described is exactly what James McClean consistently suffers. This is part of a wider nationalistic culture that has seeped in and is, unfortunately, thriving in football. Demonstrated by the regular trouble England fans get into when traveling to watch the national team, all whilst singing and displaying anti-Irish and anti-immigration sentiments.

Meanwhile, Nemanja Matic has become the latest player refusing to wear a poppy. He painfully recounts the bombing of Serbia by NATO forces in the Balkan conflict during his youth. Hundreds of British service personnel were involved in that conflict, and over 500 cluster bombs were dropped in less than three months by the RAF – the majority on civilian areas. The poppy recognises the 171 British soldiers that have died in that region since 1992.

Although less high-profile than McClean, and despite the abuse, he has and will suffer from this reasonable stand; Matic is not describing a recent or prevailing conflict. As a result, his revilement will pale into comparison to McClean’s; a Catholic from Derry rejecting what he perceives as British state murder of people from his community in the pursuit of colonialism. In a climate where the Irish border and Irish unity has once again become front-page news, the contrast illustrates purely and simply the political nature surrounding the use of the poppy.

It also further exemplifies why football must extricate itself from poppies. If you go back and look at games from 2006 and 2007 when football was played on Armistice Day in back to back seasons, the players did not wear poppies on their shirts, there was no pomp or ceremony; no men in military uniform on the pitch or the playing of the last post. Fans that choose to wear a poppy in the crowd did and did not barrage those who didn’t. Large mosaics and banners weren’t commonplace and there was a single, simple and respectable minute’s silence. This is what football should return too, otherwise every year we get to witness the deplorable elements of British society contaminating the escape of football.

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