In Good Conscience

British PM sees red over Fifa's poppy ban

Theresa May might never get an easier shot, or draw more hurrahs from across the House of Commons than when she called Fifa "utterly outrageous"? over its threat to punish England and Scotland if they wear red poppies at Wembley next Friday.

"I have to say to Fifa," the British Prime Minister stated, "that before they start telling us what to do they jolly well ought to sort their own house out!"

Friday, the 11th day of the 11th month, is Remembrance Day. It marks the end of World War I.

The poppy became a mark of respect to the fallen after John McCrae, a physician, a poet and a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Army, penned In Flanders Fields? after he saw a friend killed at Ypres, Belgium on the Western Front in 1915.

The flower is not a tribute to war. The very opposite: It is a symbol of remembrance.

But not to Fifa.

The flower is not a tribute to war. The very opposite: It is a symbol of remembrance. But not to Fifa. It is hard to think of a more discredited bunch of people... telling us what we jolly well ought to do. Hypocrisy (make that poppycock) rules.

It is hard to think of a more discredited bunch of people than those who inhabited Fifa House in Zurich. Yet, even before the courts decide - if they ever satisfactorily do - who stole the most from the global game, Fifa, as Mrs May put it, presumes to tell us what we jolly well ought to do.

Hypocrisy (make that poppycock) rules.

Two days ago, Fifa threw its new book, the Fifa Good Practice Guide on Diversity and Anti-Discrimination, at 10 nations deemed to have broken its strict new code of conduct.

Fines ranging from 15,000 to 50,000 Swiss francs (S$21,300 to S$71,200) were levied against Albania, Kosovo, Croatia, Estonia, Ukraine, Paraguay, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Iran.

The crimes ranged from discriminatory and unsporting conduct by fans, including homophobic chants, to - in Iraq's case - "religious manifestations" during a match.

There will doubtless be more such fines as Fifa's new regime pursues its mandate to clean up the game.

Money isn't everything, but so far it is the only thing that Fifa appears to be thinking about as it sets out to address the behaviour in its stadiums.

And, since the English and Scottish FAs have listened to their people (and possibly their government as well) and intend to defy Fifa's diktat that the poppy should not be worn, then it's a safe bet that they too will face pecuniary fines.

Why?

Because Fifa sees the poppy as a political symbol. Fatma Samoura, the Fifa general secretary, says England and Scotland (and also Wales, who play Serbia next Saturday in a World Cup qualifying game) must expect punishment if the poppies are worn.

Samoura is new to this game. The Senegalese was appointed by the also relatively new Swiss president, Gianni Infantino, last June after the former chief Sepp Blatter and the previous two general secretaries Jerome Valcke and his stand-in Markus Kattner were removed, pending legal trials for alleged criminal financial irregularities.

We won't go over old ground here, except to understand who is throwing the new book at whom, and for what.

The last time England played on Remembrance Day, five years ago, the FA appealed to Fifa (then under Blatter) to allow the players to at least wear black armbands bearing poppies. Fifa allowed it.

That was then, this is now. "It is not my ambition to punish anybody," said Samoura, who came to Fifa after working in humanitarian roles for the United Nations.

"They just have to recognise," she went on, "that they are part of the rules of the game and they should be ready to face any kind of sanctions."

Fifa reiterated that Law 4 of its statutes clearly states that players should not carry any political, religious or commercial messages.

"You should not make exceptions,"? Samoura said. "Britain is not the only country that has been suffering from the result of war. Syria is an example. My own continent has been torn by war for years.

"And the only question is why are we doing exceptions for just one country and not the rest of the world? We have to apply the laws uniformly across the 211 member associations."

Outside of her domain, England's rugby team will wear the poppy on their shirts when they meet South Africa next Saturday. And England's cricketers will do the same during the first Test against India, starting on Wednesday.

Those sports, too, have rules and regulations about logos and insignias on players' clothing.

If Samoura's new broom tolerates no exceptions, maybe Fifa should look again at Law 4. The taboos are not only political, religious and commercial messages, right?

So, the prevalence of logos and sponsorship names brazenly across every shirt one can think of in soccer are acceptable to Fifa?

Call me a cynic, but I reckon that money is the key. On the blood-red uniform of Infantino's country Switzerland, the Puma logo is prominently displayed on the chest.

The same German sportswear manufacturer, Puma, also kits out Samoura's Senegalese national team.

When it comes to clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid stood out against the fashion for making moving human billboards of their players, until Nike bought the rights to Barca and adidas paid to promote its insignia on the pristine white of Madrid.

Compounding that, Barcelona might now be mistaken for Qatar, such is its shirt sponsorship deal with the country that stages the Fifa World Cup after the next one in Russia. And what was it, yes, a betting company that Real Madrid also promoted on its shirts.

Then, of course, Atletico Madrid looked for a time as if it was the team of a foreign nation while its uniform carried the name Azerbaijan and the slogan "Land of Fire"? across the players' chests.

That advertising space is within the Fifa rule of no political or commercial messages? Just as dressing the World Cup stadiums in Fifa's commercial sponsorship partners is within the interpretation?

In today's world, sport needs protection from exploitation and propaganda. Even where the rule makers are raking it in from all manner of commercial "partners" and some dubious governments.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2016, with the headline 'British PM sees red over Fifa's poppy ban'. Print Edition | Subscribe