FIFA and the Poppy Men

November 11, 2011

A highly-charged story blew up over the rights of the English football team to display a poppy on their England football shirt for a match at Wembley Stadium during the week of remembrance in Britain for those killed in battle

The story could hardly have had more symbolic redolence. On one day every year, ceremonies are held throughout Britain culminating in a minute’s silence observed at precisely on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The monarch leads the ceremonies in London’s Albert Hall, and also at the ‘eleventh hour’ with representatives of the nation laying wreathes of poppies before The Cenotaph which was erected commemorating the fallen of the First World War.

At the eleventh hour

The symbolism has entered vernacular English throughout the world through the use of the term ‘at the eleventh hour’ which was the date of the Armistice ending the War in 1918.

Village memorials

The grand ceremony at The Cenotaph is replicated in humbler ways across the nation before regional and even village memorials bearing the names of the fallen.

The Power of the poppy

The symbolism of the poppy is among the most potent in British culture. The BBC runs a military-like operation to ensure not just its employees but guests appearing on its TV programmes are also displaying their poppy.

The British Legion

The [Royal] British legion leads the fund-raising efforts for service personnel. Its website gives a moving account of the history of the movement since its inception shortly after the First World War

And the football match?

This year, a friendly international football match against Spain was arranged to be played at the National stadium at Wembley on the dy after the 11th of November. Any such international falls under the authority of FIFA.

The English request

The English FA submitted their local requirements to FIFA, including the observance of a minute’s silence pre-match, and for each English players to display a poppy on his shirt

FIFA’s judgement

FIFA’s judgement was that such a request contravened its regulations prohibiting the display of religious, military, or political symbols.

The subsequent interventions

A media-led campaign broke out in England over the ‘outrageous ‘ and ‘arrogant’ behaviour of FIFA. Mention was made of bad blood between The FA and FIFA during the re-election of FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter. David Cameron introduced a political dimension. HRH Prince William, an active supporter of England’s football aspirations internationally, also weighed in with a personal plea to FIFA.

Advocacy and “getting to yes”

Students of leadership may have noted an absence of attempts to seek a constructive compromise. A notable exception came from distinguished BBC commentator Jimmy Armfield. He suggested that before the game, the players should hold aloft a poppy in an echo of the black power salute at the Olympic games many years ago

The Resolution

A creative compromise was reached. FIFA suggested [I assume it was FIFA but maybe there were ‘behind the scenes discussions] that the players could attach a poppy to the black armbands already accepted.

Leadership Lessons

For a while the episode seemed to present dilemmas for FIFA. A tricky confrontation was possible leaving the referee in a difficult position. FIFA may have demonstrated creative thinking. It may well have won the day – “at the eleventh hour”.