Wednesday 29 March 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: FIFA making a fair point about nationalism as the annual poppy bullying season starts again

James McClean is never going to wear a jersey with a poppy on it and he’s explained why not
James McClean is never going to wear a jersey with a poppy on it and he’s explained why not

Eamonn Sweeney

Tradition. Where would we be without it? Like the tradition that this time every year professional footballers plying their trade in Britain honour the war dead of the British Army - and also the tradition whereby James McClean declines to join in and people decide to have a go at him.

Mind you, this year the reaction seems to be a bit more muted, despite attempts by Gregory Campbell of the DUP to stir up feeling against his fellow Derryman. This may be partly because McClean's (right) determination in continuing with the gesture has shown that there's no point in trying to bully him. He's never going to wear a jersey with a poppy on it and he's explained why not.

But it could also be because Britain's poppy-lovers have found a new target for their ire. The guilty party this time is not just one footballer from Derry, it's the sport's world governing body. FIFA have forbidden England and Scotland from wearing poppy badges on their shirts in their friendly on November 11 on the grounds that this contravenes the rule against the wearing of political emblems. The English and Scottish FAs say they'll ignore the ruling and take whatever punishment comes their way.

The general British reaction goes along the lines of, "It's not political, it's just honouring the dead". But all wars are, to some extent, political and the commemoration of past conflicts has increasingly been used by British politicians to bolster support for more recent military adventures.

When I lived in England during the '80s and '90s one of the most refreshing things about the place was the relative lack of jingoistic nationalism. This was a nice change from Ireland, where everyone seemed to be perpetually banging on about how great we were at everything. I never wore a poppy, not for any great ideological reasons but because it just seemed to be an English thing - like marmite, warm beer with suds in it and asking 'shall I be mother?' before you poured out a cup of tea. In all that time only one person mentioned my poppy-less condition, and that was to say that they understood why, being Irish, I didn't wear one. Lots of people, some of them English, didn't wear the poppy. It was no big deal.

Things are a bit different these days. The insistence that everyone wear the poppy has been called 'poppy fascism' by some. That's a bit of an exaggeration, as there's enough genuine fascism in the world without applying the term to what's more accurately described as bullying. But it's striking that in an era when there were far more people alive who remembered and had indeed taken part in the world wars there was a much more laissez-faire attitude to the wearing of the bloody thing. It's hard not to feel that poppy fervour is connected with a political desire to link the commemoration of past conflicts with unquestioning support of military adventures in the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the process, conformity had been enforced and individual conscience belittled. Given this, James McClean's gesture of dissent looks not just courageous, but necessary. It is a long way away from the stereotype of the thoughtless professional footballer whose only worry is the size of his wage packet. I believe that history will ask why other footballers, Irish and otherwise, didn't follow his lead.

FIFA's interdiction makes sense. If England and Scotland honour their war dead what's to stop other countries following suit? Would we be comfortable with Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia displaying symbols which commemorated the soldiers who died in the recent Balkan Wars between the countries? It's hard to see why an exception should be made for Britain given that the British war dead of the 20th century include those involved in dubious campaigns in the likes of Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya, the Falklands and, indeed, James McClean's native city. There is enough nationalistic nonsense in international sport without adding further layers.

That also goes for the Easter Rising commemorative emblem worn by Ireland during a friendly against Switzerland earlier this year, which has now been dragged up as part of the current argument by Tory MP Damian Collins. Of course we're not short of people in this country who'd argue that our nationalism is a uniquely benign version compared with that of other countries, it's a point of view I suppose.

Meanwhile, The Sun has been organising an online petition to protest against FIFA's ban. This is the same Sun which called for Gary Lineker to be fired when he suggested racism towards refugees is a bad thing.

Someone should tell them there are better ways to honour the fight against fascism than wearing a poppy on a football shirt.

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