Gareth Southgate was a poppy-patterned bandana short of looking somewhat ridiculous on Friday. He elected to wear two poppies, just in case anyone had considered accusing him of a lack of patriotism. While Southgate is of course entitled to pay his respects in any way he sees fit, the double poppy ensemble did feel somewhat over the top, and far from a symbol of dignified reflection.
If Gordon Strachan’s decision to wear one poppy was defiant, Southgate’s excessive use of the poppy felt like a distasteful act of remembrance. Furthermore, the FA’s reasoning for defying Fifa has highlighted how far the poppy has strayed from its original purpose.
In the week leading up to the England/Scotland match, pundits, players and members of the FA denied that the poppy was a political issue. This non-political poppy argument would be far more compelling if it wasn’t accompanied by words such as ‘hero’ and ‘freedom.’
‘The visit was to remember why we wear the poppies, to remember the effect that those people going to war had on our country still today, the fact that we have the freedom we do and to hear the individual stories,’ said Southgate.
‘It’s the oldest fixture in football so it’s an important match for our countries and it’s a game where both countries will remember the heroes and pay our respects,’ said Rooney.
Once you start using the words ‘hero’ and ‘freedom’ you start getting into a very murky area. Such statements could suggest that you believe war is necessary or justified. The British Legion specifically state on their website that the Poppy is NOT a symbol to support war.
What Southgate and Rooney have demonstrated, is a misunderstanding of the true meaning of the poppy. This becomes all the more difficult given that wars such as the Iraq war are questionable on both a moral and political level. While many people in England see the poppy as nothing more than a symbol of remembrance , we mustn’t forget that it isn’t seen in the same way in other parts of the world.
James Mcclean eloquently expressed how the poppy means something very different to him and many of his fellow countrymen:
If the poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War One and Two I would wear one; I want to make that 100 per cent clear. You must understand this. But the poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me.
For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different. Please understand, Mr Whelan, that when you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell or the majority of places in Derry, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland’s history – even if, like me, you were born nearly 20 years after the event. It is just a part of who we are, ingrained into us from birth.
Mr Whelan, for me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially – as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.
Southgate also described the poppy as a ‘national symbol’ ahead of the England/Scotland match. While this is true, I wonder if the interim England boss knows that wearing the poppy was invented by an American, to raise money for American war veterans, after being inspired by a poem written by a Canadian lieutenant and physician, about a battle fought by a number of nations in a field in France?
Of course symbols change over time, but it is important to remember that the poppy is officially a symbol of remembrance and hope. Nothing more. Interestingly, its prominence in football is a very recent phenomenon.
When England drew with Sweden at Old Trafford in 2001, on the day before Armistice Day, there were no armbands and no poppies. Nor was there any outrage. The rise of the poppy in football has seemingly emerged with a renewed sense of nationalism following the financial crash of 2008.
Sociologists, philosophers and political commentators have all spoken of a tendency to get all patriotic during times of hardship. Much of the success of UKIP and Brexit’s leave campaign can be attributed to this renewed sense of patriotism.
While people are entitled to find comfort and solace in their British identity, it is very dangerous for organisations such as the FA to bow to patriotic pressure from the public and tabloid press. Especially when the idea that the poppy can be interpreted as non-political is simply incorrect.
When you are in a position of authority, and represent an organisation you should speak on such matters in a responsible manner. The misunderstanding that Southgate, Rooney and the FA have demonstrated in the last week is, at the very least, an illustration of a careless attitude toward the truth, and at most a willingness to pander to a nationalistic ideology that isn’t in-keeping with the true purpose of the poppy.
When the FA, the England manager and the captain take such a strong stance on the matter, it leaves any player, who may not want to wear the poppy, in a very difficult position. What was intended to be a personal choice to pay respect has become a patriotic duty. In my opinion something has gone awfully wrong here.
The British Legion do not have the same platform as the England manager, a pundit, or a high profiled Premier League player. As a result, their statements are far more influential when it comes to informing and distorting the public position on the poppy. This is a great shame and a sad reflection of the post truth society we now operate in.
I will leave you with this picture of Hector Bellerin wearing a Call of Duty t-shirt with a poppy on it. This epitomises the pressure footballers are under to adhere to cultural traditions, even when playing a game that arguably glorifies war through its gamification.
While I am certain the young Arsenal player didn’t even realise the huge contradiction, it is a reminder of what a confused time we are living in.