Deflated-football-with-bowOn 19 December 2016, FIFA announced that it was fining each of the four Home Nation’s Football Associations for “incidents during 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying matches and international friendlies”.  In short, this is FIFA’s decision to fine the Home Nations for their actions in commemorating Armistice Day and Easter Rising respectively during Official competition, which FIFA deemed to be a breach of Law 4 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game.

Sports Shorts previously wrote about the difficult intersection between sport and politics and the possibility that the Home Nations’ actions may lead to sanctions.

FIFA’s sanctions, against the actions the Home Nations took, amounted to a total of £80,000 and are as follows:

Match Home Nation Action Sanction FIFA’s Comment
England v Scotland, 11 November 2016 The FA Poppies displayed on:

  • Player’s armbands
  • Big screens in Wembley
  • Fans’ attire
  • Poppy T-shirts handed to fans

A 1 minute silence was  observed and the Last Post was played.

CHF 45,000 (£35,311) “…several incidents in the framework of the England v Scotland match including the display by the host association, the English team and spectators of a political symbol and several cases of spectator misconduct.”
England v Scotland, 11 November 2016 The Scottish FA Poppies displayed on:

  • Player’s armbands
  • Fans’ attire
CHF 20,000 (£15,694) …the display of the same political symbol and cases of misconduct…”
Wales v Serbia, 12 November 2016 The Football Association of Wales Poppies displayed on:

  • Wreaths before kick off
  • A fans’ mosaic
  • Fans’ attire
  • A member of the armed forces
CHF 20,000 (£15,694) … several incidents, including the display of political symbols…”
Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan, 11 November 2016 The Irish FA
  • Poppies displayed on wreaths before kick off
  • 1 minute silence
  • Fans’ poppy display
CHF 15,000 (£11,770) … several incidents, including the display of political symbols…”
Republic of Ireland v Switzerland, 25 March 2016 (International Friendly) The Football Association of Ireland Easter Rising symbol displayed on team shirts CHF 5,000 (£3,930) … the display of a political symbol on the shirt…

As a preliminary point, it is clear that the Home Nations’ actions set out above could not all fall under a charge of breach of Law 4(4): a stadium is not ‘equipment’. Presumably therefore, though FIFA’s press release does not confirm this is the case, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also been charged under Regulation 60(1) of FIFA’s Stadium Safety and Security Regulations which provides as follows:

“The promotion or announcement of political or religious messages or any other political or religious actions, inside or in the immediate vicinity of the stadium, by any means, is strictly prohibited before, during and after matches.”

In announcing the sanctions, the Chairman of the FIFA Disciplinary Committee, Claudio Sulser, commented:

“[w]ith these decisions, it is not our intention to judge or question specific commemorations as we fully respect the significance of such moments in the respective countries, each one of them with its own history and background. However, keeping in mind that the rules need to be applied in a neutral and fair manner across FIFA’s 211 member associations, the display, among others, of any political or religious symbol is strictly prohibited. In the stadium and on the pitch, there is only room for sport, nothing else,”

While this author would question the veracity of the final sentence of that statement in the context of stadiums and pitches brimming with commercial sponsorship, social media, advertisement and TV coverage… it is interesting to note that despite The FA and the Scottish FA’s deliberately going against FIFA’s poppy ‘ban’ they were each fined less than Greece (CHF 80,000) for the Greek fans displaying a political banner, an action that presumably the Greek FA had less control over. Further, regular readers of Sports Shorts will recall that FIFA’s position on the display of poppies in 2016 is different to the compromise position it reached with the Home Nations in 2011.

It is clear from today’s announcement that FIFA, under Gianni Infantino’s leadership, has unequivocally deemed the poppy to be a ‘political symbol’ and, as such, its display is, and will continue to be, prohibited by FIFA’s Laws of the Game.

FIFA’s pursuit of the Home Nations has created much debate: the Royal British Legion says that the poppy is not a political symbol but a symbol of remembrance and hope”; others have argued that it now “serves to sanitise war.

The FA has announced that it will appeal FIFA’s decision.  It is required to exhaust FIFA’s internal appeal remedies first but, if that appeal fails, The FA has stated that it is prepared to appeal the matter externally to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.   The Scottish FA is still considering whether it will appeal while Northern Ireland has indicated it will seek legal advice before making its decision.  Any appeal(s) will likely turn on the question of whether the poppy is, in fact, a political symbol.  In the absence of the full written reasons, it is unclear whether FIFA has determined that the poppy is a political symbol per se or that it is a political symbol in a sporting context.  If it is the former, and against a background of sport and FIFA’s long (and fiercely) protected autonomy (a key part of which is the freedom from political interference), it would be astonishing that a wholly sporting body would consider that it had jurisdiction to determine what is and what isn’t a political symbol.

Whichever side of the argument you fall down on, it is worth recalling that the fines that the Home Nations received (and the costs associated with any appeal(s)) could form a sizeable donation to the Royal British Legion.  If, after the appeal process is exhausted, the poppy is determined to be a political symbol, perhaps the Home Nations could consider matching those fines in donations for future Armistice Day matches.