The Rule Britannia brigade were out in force this week furiously denouncing an international football ban on what they say is their right to commemorate Britain’s war dead.
Soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, ruled that when England plays Scotland next week on November 11 neither team is permitted to wear the red poppy symbol on their shirts.
For decades, the tiny red flower has been donned on sundry garments as a show of respect by ordinary Britons for soldiers and other armed-service personnel who have died in past wars. At this time of year, for example, every British TV news presenter is obliged to pin a poppy on his or her lapel under pain of being pilloried as «unpatriotic».
Both England and Scotland teams are defiantly protesting the FIFA ban, saying that they will go ahead with their plan for players to display the floral symbol, even though the action could result in financial penalties against the respective countries.
The teams are playing in London’s Wembley arena in an opening qualifier match for the 2018 World Cup to be held in Russia.
Every year, Britain and other nations of the British Commonwealth hold public events to commemorate legions of war dead on November 11. The date also marks Armistice Day that ended the First World War in 1918.
The annual British remembrance ceremony is dedicated to all fallen members of the armed forces, not just those who died during the First World War, but in every war that British forces have participated in. That includes servicemen killed in action during far-flung international conflicts from Iraq and Afghanistan to colonial-era wars in Africa and Asia.
This is where the issue becomes problematic. FIFA’s rules forbid any national team displaying logos conveying a «political, religious or commercial message on shirts».
British football officials and media are claiming that the red poppy and the act of remembrance are not political. The British seem to be deeply perplexed that the custom of honoring their war dead could be construed as having a political connotation.
England’s Football Association issued a statement saying: «The poppy is an important symbol of remembrance and we do not believe it represents a political, religious or commercial message, nor does it relate to any one historical event».
British Prime Minister Theresa May fulminated in the House of Commons this week that FIFA’s poppy ban was «utterly outrageous». Her Conservative government is reeling with unpopularity over the Brexit EU debacle, so no doubt May’s playing on populist emotions is good politics for relief.
May told parliamentarians: «Our football players want to recognize and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security. I think it is absolutely right that they should be able to do so».
The British tabloid press are also predictably whipping up public fury. The demagogic Murdoch-owned Sun blared on its front page that «Footie chiefs ban war dead tributes on England shirts», while the equally jingoistic Daily Mail blasted two words on its front – «POPPY WAR!».
The same media outlets have embarked on a campaign to vilify the FIFA official responsible for the decision. FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura, from West Africa, was labelled by the Daily Mail as a «Senegalese bureaucrat» and the newspaper snidely pointed out that she was newly appointed in the job by FIFA President Gianni Infantino. In other words, there is a racist undertone in the British press that Samoura, a former UN diplomat, is not competent.
To her credit, the FIFA general secretary remained steadfast in her decision. While in London this week, she said: «Britain is not the only country that has been suffering from the result of war. Syria is an example. My own continent has been torn by war for years. And the only question is why are we doing exceptions for just one country and not the rest of the world?»
And that indeed is the point. If every footballing nation was allowed to display images commemorating wars, then the practice would descend into chaos. Admittedly, it can be argued that some wars down through history were objectively noble. It is arguable that Russia’s Great Patriotic War (1941-45) was one such event in that it led to the defeat of genocidal Nazi Germany and European fascism.
Nevertheless, the whole subject is fraught with nationalistic interpretation. One nation’s «good war» is another nation’s «bad war». So, in the end, it seems judicious to just drop the matter and play safe by upholding a total ban on all national soccer teams displaying any untoward symbol.
It is naive perhaps to expect to keep politics entirely out of sport, as we clearly saw earlier this year at the Rio Olympics when Western states used the issue of doping by athletes as an excuse to ostracize the Russian team.
However, if FIFA were to permit national teams to display images beyond a minimum of the country’s flag then surely it would invite a slippery slope of rampant politicization.
On the specific British grievance over FIFA’s ban, the furor betrays typical British national conceit. The Brits may claim that their commemoration is a neutral matter of merely paying respects to the dead. Put in those anodyne terms one might understand the perceived offense.
But the British annual war remembrance is far from being a neutral act of paying respect to the dead. It is a deeply political act that is entwined with Britain’s imperialist past and ongoing pretensions.
When British politicians and members of the monarchy lay poppy wreathes at London’s Whitehall Cenotaph on November 11, they are glorifying all military operations ever undertaken by the British state.
As noted above, that includes such illegal overseas interventions as in Iraq (2003-2011) during which more than a million Iraqis were killed. It includes paying respect – glorifying – former British counterinsurgency wars in Cyprus, Ireland, Kenya, Yemen, Malaysia, Myanmar, India, among many others, in which legitimate independence movements were bludgeoned by British soldiers carrying out cold-blooded massacres.
And yet, British leaders self-righteously refer to these murderous campaigns as chivalrous acts «for our safety and security».
Moreover, the red poppy tradition – inspired by the delicate blossoms that would later console the killing fields of Flanders – was first began by a British public disgusted by the First World War which they saw as an outcome of feuding among the European monarchs, including Britain’s. The commemoration, however, was quickly co-opted by the British rulers as a deft means of absolving their warmongering guilt and propensity.
That’s what many people view as objectionable in the contemporary British war remembrance and its poppy displays. The event has become a political subterfuge, giving moral authority to Britain’s power structure which to this day remains a belligerent warmongering entity.
Just this week as the controversy of FIFA’s poppy ban was underway, scarcely was it noticed that British Defense Minister Michael Fallon was telling a parliamentary committee about military plans for a future war with Russia.
Today, Britain may be a has-been colonial power, but its political establishment still constitutes an insidious war-making machine.
Any act that gives Britain’s establishment a veneer of acceptability is a hugely political act. Wearing a red poppy is such an act, even if performed unwittingly by footballers. And FIFA is right to give it a red card.
Still, such is the arrogance of Rule Britannia, one can expect a fierce, dirty campaign in the coming days against FIFA mounted by the British media. And with its recent controversies over corruption under former President Sepp Blatter, the governing soccer body might be susceptible to British foul play.
*Finian Cunningham is a former editor and writer for major news media organizations. He has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages
Strategic Culture, November 4, 2016