In 1919 a series of special international football matches were held between the British home nations. They were not to honour or remember the dead but to celebrate victory in the Great War. For all the suffering inflicted by the conflict, it was still a success for Britain and one which many veterans were immensely proud of. Thus the very first commemorations of the world wars in football were celebrations of triumph rather than loss.
Some of those taking part in the ‘Victory Internationals’ were veterans themselves. Cardiff City’s Fred Keenor, for example, had served in the 17th Middlesex Regiment. This was a unit nicknamed the Footballers’ Battalion, which had been created to deflect criticism that football was not doing enough to help the war effort. In later years, like many of his comrades, Keenor did not speak much about his wartime experiences. He told his son he was one of the lucky ones who came back.
The fact that a widespread sense of loss co-existed with pride in the victory meant that interwar football was used to remember the dead. It was very common for fans visiting London for the FA Cup final to go to the national Cenotaph. Abide with Me became established as a cup final ritual in this period probably because, as a funeral hymn, it had a poignancy and meaning for the thousands in the crowd who had served or lost someone.
But interwar sporting crowds also sang army songs such as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and, for the generation who actually fought and experienced the war, remembrance was always a mix of pride and grief.
The Prime Minister, and many others, have argued that remembering the dead is not political. Even if this dubious claim is accepted, the fact that the poppy remains, for some, also a celebration of military achievement politicises it. When this is added to the new pressure on public figures to wear one or risk being branded unpatriotic or disrespectful of the dead, the idea that the poppy is not political makes no sense at all.
Today FIFA, or rather the International Football Association Board whose rules it enforces, is reluctant to see politics enter football for good reason. It fears the game being hijacked by those who wish to make a political point and is uncomfortable with anything that might cause controversy for the sport it is meant to protect and promote. FIFA also understands that there is a long history of this actually happening – from the overt attempts by the Nazis to exploit the game, to the use of sporting sanctions to try to force change in the domestic policies of Apartheid South Africa.
Yet the rule against political, religious and commercial symbols on shirts actually makes little sense. Every national shirt bears the commercial logo of its manufacturer. England’s national anthem, sung before every international, is overtly religious. Many of the badges of national associations have political symbolism within them.
Moreover, the very fact that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, none of which are independent nation states, have national teams at all is a political statement in itself. Indeed, for the Welsh and Scots at least, sport has been a crucial force in keeping alive a popular national identity in the shadow of England’s cultural, economic and political domination of the UK.
Football is thus awash with symbols that go against the neutrality that FIFA is seeking. Indeed, through its own anti-racism campaigns, FIFA too pushes a political agenda, even if it is one that most people would agree with.
FIFA is correct that poppies are political, but wrong to think that football can or even should be apolitical. The game’s immense cultural significance can be used for political good, as happened with the pressure on South Africa and as continues to happen with FIFA’s anti-racism work.
Yet that does not mean the FAs of England, Scotland and Wales are right to push so hard for poppies on their shirts. In doing so there is a danger that they are not seeking primarily to remember the dead, but rather to avoid the moral outrage of the right-wing press and social media commentators. Indeed, the Welsh and Scottish FAs might also think about how the poppy is in danger of becoming a symbol of the reactionary Britishness that leads some of their fans to deny they are British at all.
A more powerful gesture than a poppy on a shirt would a minute’s silence for the war-dead of all countries. That would fulfil the desire of those who wish to remember the British dead but also make a powerful political statement that football is something that is meant to unite nations.
FIFA would surely approve of that.
Martin Johnes is Reader in History at Swansea University, where he teaches courses on the history of sport and modern Britain. His publications include Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012) and A History of Sport in Wales (University of Wales Press, 2005). His latest book is Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), which looks at the history of the festival since 1914. You can find him on twitter @.
Image: Officers and men of 26th Divisional Ammunition Train playing football in Salonika, Greece on Christmas day 1915 [via Wikicommons].