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Proletarian issue 75 (December 2016)
The Fifa poppy ban
Although the ban is no doubt stupid, the purpose of the poppy is the glorification of imperialist war.
The English and Scottish Football Associations (EFA and SFA) set out to disobey the rules of the game when the sides met this Remembrance Day, despite being warned by Fifa that players wearing black armbands emblazoned with poppies would be a breach of Fifa rules.

In a crucial World Cup qualifying match between the so-called ‘auld enemy’, the match was entirely overshadowed by a flagrant breach of FIFA rules – with both sides wearing specially prepared poppy armbands.

This was a flagrant breach of Fifa’s fourth law, which states: “the basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images. The team of a player whose basic equipment has political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by Fifa. (Fifa, Laws of the Game 2015-16)

Every year, the football world, like the rest of our nation, is dominated by poppy fascism. For instance, 5 and 6 November saw British clubs en masse wearing the poppy and laying wreaths, while soldiers were paraded at football grounds. This practice only started within the last decade, but it now happens every year without our clubs being sanctioned by Fifa.

The reason for this contradiction between the sanctioning of the FAs and the non-sanctioning of local clubs is a bizarre division of power in the governance of the game. So whilst Fifa is the ultimate authority overseeing all others, it delegates the running of club football in each area to the relevant ‘national’ FA. The only reason Fifa has involved itself in the poppy issue now is that it happened at a World Cup qualifier.

Fifa’s decision sparked outrage among the ruling elite in Britain. Football moved from the back page to the front page; Prime Minister Theresa May even intervened. Despite the interjection of our nation’s leading politician, the Royal British Legion (RBL) had the temerity to state: “We see no reason why the poppy should be banned from players’ shirts as it is not a political symbol.” (Is the poppy a political symbol?, BBC News, 1 November 2016)

This position has been reinforced by Britain’s imperialist media, with outlet after outlet assuring the nation that the poppy is not political. An obvious question arises: if the poppy is not political, why are our leading politicians so concerned by it? This seems an odd discrepancy, to say the least.

A similar discrepancy can be found regarding the case of Celtic Football Club. In November 2010, players in the Celtic team, like all others, played with a poppy emblazoned on their kit. Celtic fans have proved the one praiseworthy exception among British football supporters on this issue, however.

The club was created in 1888 by Brother Walfrid, to help Glasgow’s poor Irish migrant population, and its fans like to sing a song with the line “If you know your history”. Throughout its existence, the club has been maligned by the British establishment, and portrayed as an Irish club playing in Britain. Consequently, in the November 2010 game against Aberdeen, a section of fans unveiled a banner reading: "Your deeds would shame all the devils in hell. Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No blood-stained poppy on our hoops.”

Unsurpisingly, given the nature of modern football, there is today a great chasm between the fans and the corporate management at Celtic. The majority shareholder is billionaire Dermot Desmond, and the club is managed on his behalf by stooge Peter Lawwell, who vowed to ban fans in the wake of their 2010 poppy protest.

With football more and more controlled by the bourgeoisie, such a divide between fans and owners cannot but emerge. Clubs like Celtic, which were created in the image of their fans, come to reflect the image of their owners. The management often join in with the SFA, Uefa and the Scottish media in attacking their own fans for ‘political statements’, often centred around ‘pro-IRA [ie, pro-Irish republican] chanting’ and, most recently, the flying of Palestinian flags.

Most pertinently, one song sung by Celtic fans is the Roll of Honour. This remembers the ten hunger strikers who heroically gave their lives for the cause of Irish liberation in 1981. Fans have been arrested by Glasgow police for singing the song, and banned from attending games by the club.

So, according to our ruling class, to ‘remember’ troops who fought in Britain’s dirty imperialist wars of aggression is non-political, but to remember prisoners of war who actually gave their lives for freedom (that favourite mantra of the British political class) is a political act, and punishable by law in Scotland under the SNP’s Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

Of course, Celtic’s management is bound to argue that the club can be, and in the past has been, subjected to heavy fines because of its fans’ demonstrations of political partisanship – all outlawed by Fifa rules that the Scottish FA actually does enforce. However, when the political partisanship is of the kind favoured by the British imperialist elite, that is altogether a different matter!

Poppywashing imperialist wars

Unsurprisingly, the Celtic poppy protest provoked outrage among the British establishment. These days, nothing is so beyond criticism, so safeguarded and glorified as the military, and the poppy campaign is one arm of that process of sanctification. The media united to attack Celtic’s principled and class-conscious fans. In a rather ironic headline (considering the source), the hatemongering Sun called them “hate yobs”. (Celtic ban poppy hate yobs by Paul Drury, The Scottish Sun, 9 November 2010)

The ‘analyses’ of so-called critics and pundits had one common line running through them: there is no place for politics in football. Of course, they meant this with reference to the banner, not with regards to the political poppy provocation. Again, there is a clear discrepancy and contradiction, with the media and ruling class wishing to have their cake and eat it.

Whilst we are expected to swallow the lie that the poppy is not political, any attempt by workers to avoid having it forced upon them is political. Orwell may have been a paid agent of the bourgeoisie, who wrote solely to discredit communism, but it is modern capitalist Britain that has mastered Orwellian doublespeak.

Moreover, if wearing the poppy is ‘not political’, then why did such a cry of rage arise from bourgeois quarters in November 2014, when Ireland international winger James McClean, who plays in the English football league, decided not wear a poppy-embroidered shirt like the rest of his Wigan team-mates in a match against Bolton?

In a letter from McClean (who was born and raised in the working-class area of Creggan in Derry, in common with six of those massacred by the British army on Bloody Sunday), addressed to Wigan’s chairman, Dave Whelan, McClean explained clearly the political significance of the poppy.

In that letter, McClean said: “I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both world wars – many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those.

“I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and 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 percent 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.

“It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people.

“I am not a warmonger, or anti-British, or a terrorist or any of the accusations levelled at me in the past. I am a peaceful guy; I believe everyone should live side by side, whatever their religious or political beliefs, which I respect and ask for people to respect mine in return. Since last year I am a father and I want my daughter to grow up in a peaceful world, like any parent.

“I am very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong. In life, if you’re a man, you should stand up for what you believe in.” (James McClean explains why he didn't wear poppy on his shirt, Daily Mail, 7 November 2014)

The fact of the matter is that the poppy is a political statement. Whether it was or was not when launched by the RBL is irrelevant. What matters is that at some point it became a political matter.

Looking from a materialist standpoint, one obvious point is that an objective change in the meaning of the poppy occurred when it went from marking only those killed in the two world wars to remembering British troops lost in all conflicts. The second world war, at least from 1941, was a just war, and we should have no problem remembering those who gave their life in the struggle against fascism. No communist would object to this.

Undoubtedly the first world war was an interimperialist war, fought only by imperialist powers, for the sole purpose of the redivison of the globe. However, the most important matter is that in both world wars, men were conscripts, forced to fight or rot in prison.

Men who were forced to fight, to kill and be killed on behalf of imperialism, deserve to be remembered. The hell on earth they were forced to endure on behalf of the rich should not be forgotten. This, though, is a million miles away from the message of the poppy campaign today.

More importantly, an objective contradiction has arisen between the status of these men, and the status of those who freely joined the imperialist British army in subsequent years and conflicts. Whilst some leftists will argue that these men and women were conscripts of poverty, it is also true that many more poor workers do not resort to becoming hired killers for imperialism.

The fact is that there is an objective divergence in the status of those who are forced to fight and those who choose to. Not only choosing to fight (we communists are not pacifists), but choosing to fight for an obviously imperialist army. Of course, not every worker has a Marxist understanding of imperialism, but anyone with working eyes and ears knows that Britain has not fought a just war since World War 2.

When the poppy campaign went from honouring conscripts and those fighting Hitlerite fascism to sanctifying the colonisers of Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, the destroyers of Yugoslavia, Libya, Yemen and Congo (and so many more), and presenting them all as brave preservers of British freedom – at that moment it was transformed from being a token of remembrance to being a political weapon for normalising imperialist war.

And so, whilst the banning of political statements at football is pure folly (no doubt designed originally to deprive progressive political publicists of a mass working-class audience), in this case, the British bourgeoisie and Britain’s footballing authorities have been clearly exposed as hypocrites.
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