Lest we forgetAlmost a year ago, Sports Shorts first wrote about FIFA’s decision to refuse a request made by the English and Scottish Football Associations for their players to wear armbands featuring poppies in the match they were due to play on Armistice Day in 2016.  The English and Scottish football associations ignored FIFA’s decision and allowed their players to wear armbands featuring the symbol, while the Welsh and Northern Irish matches played in the same week also contained displays on the pitch or in the stands to mark the event.

As a result of this disobedience, FIFA fined the English FA CHF 45,000, while the Scottish and Welsh football associations each received a fine of CHF 20,000.  The Northern Ireland football association was fined CHF 15,000.

The basis of FIFA’s decision is found in Law 4 of FIFA’s The Laws of the Game, which states as follows:

“Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images. Players must not reveal undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer`s logo. For any infringement the player and/or the team will be sanctioned by the competition organiser, national football association or to be justified by FIFA.”

Law 4 therefore prohibits football players from wearing any equipment (including undergarments) that features political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images.  The provision is broadly worded and is not designed solely to prevent political messages from entering the field of play.

It is worth noting that Law 4 has not been amended since FIFA fined the home nations in 2016 for their acts of remembrance.  Yet FIFA’s stance on the issue appears to have mellowed.  It has been reported that FIFA is prepared to lift its ban on the home nations teams wearing poppies on their shirts or armbands in time for England’s proposed friendly against Germany on the evening before Armistice Day. 

The reports suggest that FIFA will allow poppies to be worn/displayed, provided the opposing team and the organising body concerned give their approval before the match.  It is understood that the German football association has informed senior English FA executives that it would be supportive of England players displaying poppies when the sides play.  As it would be a friendly match, FIFA would retain ultimate jurisdiction on the decision of whether or not to permit the poppies to be worn.

While the decision (if ratified) will certainly be welcomed by most in the home nations, it is unclear why FIFA feels it appropriate to relax its interpretation of Law 4 in the case of poppies.  Last year, FIFA’s Secretary General, Fatma Samoura stated that:

“Britain is not the only country that has been suffering from the result of war.”

This statement made it clear that FIFA did not want to set an exceptional precedent in the case of the home nations and their poppies.

The primary purpose of Law 4 is to ensure that the focus of football remains the game itself.  As noted on previous occasions by Sports Shorts, politics and sport are often uneasy bedfellows.   While FIFA may wish football and politics to remain separate issues, the reality of the situation is often very different.  By way of example, Barcelona defender Gerard Pique has this week stated that he would stop playing for the Spanish national team if anyone considered that his support for Catalan independence was problematic.   As the scenes in Barcelona this week have shown, this is an incredibly divisive issue, with strong beliefs on both sides of the debate.   With Barcelona playing last weekend’s home match against Las Palmas behind closed doors as a result of the febrile atmosphere in the Catalonian capital, it is clear that issues of sport and politics are not black and white.

To date, FIFA has taken the view that it does not want to take a side on an issue that could be perceived as contentious.  It will therefore be fascinating to see whether (a) a poppy precedent is set and then (b) whether other parties will then seek to rely on that precedent in support or remembrance of other conflicts.