- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2011

PARIS (AP) - England 1, FIFA 0. And at what cost to football?

With help from Prince William and well-timed indignation from Prime Minister David Cameron, England won this time. It bent FIFA’s arm so that its players can wear a symbol _ a red poppy _ during a football match this weekend, to remember the dead from the past century of wars Britain fought in.

But the begrudging ‘If you insist’ from FIFA sets an unnecessary and perhaps risky precedent.

Post-poppy, what’s next? North Korea demanding that its footballers keep their lapel pins honoring dictators Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung when they play?

Could China now request that its team be allowed to commemorate Japan’s 1937 slaughter of at least 150,000 people known as the “Rape of Nanking?”

Can Japan have a dove of peace or other symbol to remember the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The list could run on and on.

There are 200 or so countries under the FIFA umbrella, and each and every one of them has political and social issues, special days of historical importance, perceived injustices and long-held grudges, and nationally recognized symbols that are as dear to their hearts as the poppy is to those Britons who wear it ahead of Remembrance Day on Nov. 11 in tribute to soldiers killed from World War I onward.

Football, at least on the pitch, shouldn’t have to make space for all of this national baggage.

For 90 minutes, leave it behind.

Providing a neutral pitch enables football to function and thrive as a global game, cross closed borders and bring together people otherwise divided.

The pared-down simplicity of just 22 players and one ball enables Israelis to play Palestinians, South Korea to play North Korea, or Argentina and England to meet in the World Cup four years after the 1982 Falklands War.

There could be arguments, instead of football, if nations were allowed to advocate their causes on the field and wave them in the face of the opposing team or of the world.

For once, football’s ruling body had done the right thing by initially resisting English pressure.

Political, religious or commercial messages aren’t allowed on players’ match kit, FIFA said. “Accepting such initiatives would open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world, jeopardizing the neutrality of football,” it explained.

That meant no embroidered poppy on England’s shirt.

But that principled stand, as reasonable as it was, also left FIFA looking potentially cold, heartless and overly bureaucratic, at least to Britons.

After all, the poppy isn’t offensive like a Nazi swastika. It is not a Christian cross or a commercial symbol like the golden arches. How could FIFA insensitively stamp on such a sweet, seemingly innocent flower?

“This seems outrageous,” Cameron said Wednesday. “The idea that wearing a poppy to remember those who have given their lives for our freedom is a political act is absurd. Wearing a poppy is an act of huge respect and national pride.

“I hope FIFA will reconsider.”

It did. Later Wednesday, FIFA caved.

Under a compromise, England players will wear the poppy on black armbands against world champion Spain at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.

“The poppy will be visible throughout the game,” England’s Football Association said.

FIFA will be able to argue that this is a one-off, and that its honor and rules weren’t trampled on because the poppy will only be on an armband, not a shirt.

Regardless of whether the poppy itself is or is not a political symbol, the act of a British prime minister campaigning for it clearly was. Did the Aston Villa supporter really feel that strongly about how FIFA manages football? Or was this an issue that offered Cameron a handy diversion from far more pressing problems Britain faces?

Likely, it was both. Cameron isn’t the first politician to score political points off the back of sports and won’t be the last. Seen as discredited by many fans of football, FIFA is the easiest of slow-moving targets for a politician or anyone to take shots at and make themselves look good by doing so.

For football, what’s important now is that this not become the beginning of a long and slippery slope. A poppy on an armband, just this once, OK, but stop there.

Keep it simple.

Players, a ball.

No more, no less.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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