In Good Conscience

In Good Conscience: England, Germany wear poppies as Fifa is silenced

England, but also Germany, lined up at Wembley Stadium last night wearing black armbands with red poppies.

France, as well as Wales, also bore tributes in the Stade de France in Paris on the same evening, although the French players' armbands were white, bearing the Bleuet de France, the cornflower symbol for remembrance in their country.

One year ago, Fifa attempted to crack down on England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales by fining them tens of thousands of Swiss francs for observing the act of remembrance to the fallen of the two world wars.

This is exactly the same act of remembrance that will be observed at the Kranji War Memorial tomorrow - the Sunday after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, marking the end of the First World War in 1918.

Kranji has more than 4,400 white gravestones honouring the men and women from Britain, Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, India, Malaya, the Netherlands, New Zealand and China who were killed during World War ll.

The Singapore Memorial names 24,346 Allied soldiers and airmen killed in South-east Asia who have no known grave.

They are remembered everywhere in the words of the English classicist John Maxwell Edmonds:

"When you go home, tell them of us and say

For their tomorrow, we gave our today."

Those words have long been regarded everywhere, bar Fifa House, as being on behalf of all of humanity.

The exceptional tribute at Wembley last night came from Germany. By Fifa law, the English FA had to request agreement in advance from their opponents to wear the poppies.

Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German Football Association, the DFB, responded without hesitation.

"It's not about political propaganda," Grindel said on the DFB website. "The symbol of the poppy is about values that were trampled upon during both world wars, but that we continue to treasure in football today - respect, tolerance and humanity."

There is, so far as I have been able to check, no precedent for Germany wearing the poppies, or taking part in the ritual before the game when players of both sides line up for a minute's silence followed by the Last Post.

It sends shivers down the spine. Every British club, and many in the Commonwealth, will have ritually observed that act of remembrance. And while so many pre-match tributes are less well managed, you could hear a pin drop in stadiums throughout the British Isles where crowds and players of scores of nationalities silently acknowledge the moment.

I confess, I did wonder whether any German player felt he should have been asked rather than be told to take part last night.

There is the famous, or infamous, case of West Bromwich Albion's Irish winger James McClean, who refuses to wear a shirt with an embroidered poppy. "If the poppy was simply about World War I and II victims alone, I would wear it without a problem," he said.

"But it doesn't - it stands for all the conflicts that Britain has been involved in. Because of the history of where I come from in Derry, I cannot wear something that represents that."

McClean is vilified, violently by some, for his conviction. Maybe the German federation should first have asked if their players were to a man all happy to wear the British tribute to the war dead; maybe some had grandfathers killed on the other side.

There lies the nub of Fifa's blind and blanket condemnation of all insignia worn not only by players, but according to its rule even by members of the public.

"Keeping in mind that the rules need to be applied in a neutral and fair manner across Fifa's 211 member associations," said Claudio Sulser, the Swiss chairman of Fifa's disciplinary committee last year, "the display, among others, of any political symbol is strictly prohibited. In the stadium and on the pitch, there is only room for sport, nothing else."

There is, so far as I have been able to check, no precedent for Germany wearing the poppies, or taking part in the ritual before the game when players of both sides line up for a minute's silence followed by the Last Post.

Swiss neutrality is enshrined in history. They have not participated in any war for more than 200 years.

However, Fifa is housed in Zurich, where it banks its global treasure. And while the credo of "no political, religious or commercial messages" of any kind sounds a noble ideal in the Fifa rule book, it is at odds with the pomp and ceremony that precedes any match between nations anywhere around the globe.

We all stand to the national anthems of the two opposing sides, do we not? Fifa would again bear down with its hefty fines on any member association whose fans whistle or attempt to shout down the national anthems.

Fifa also dresses up its stadiums and its players while carrying out commercial checking for "official partners" (i.e. those who pay Fifa) and during the 2010 World Cup ordered South African police to round up 200 Dutch girls wearing the orange shirts of a rival beer, rather than the official Fifa brand.

Neutrality is a noble concept, enshrined in Fifa law. But it is applied with hypocrisy.

On the one hand, observe the anthems that divide us. On the other, commemorate at your peril the millions who were sacrificed in the defence of nationalism, and freedom.

Personally, I find the ceremonial dressing up of sports to be both inspiring and unappealing at the same time. The anthems and flag-waving do stir the emotion, though to have them before every club game, as Americans do, lessens the overall impact and the meaning.

But last night at Wembley broke new ground. The sight of the England and Germany players, standing shoulder to poppy-bearing shoulder, was meant to represent shared human respect. Its message was to forgive but not forget.

And even Fifa had to observe silence this time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2017, with the headline 'England, Germany wear poppies as Fifa is silenced'. Print Edition | Subscribe