Now that Colonel Gaddafi has left us, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has no rival as the UK media's favourite international hate figure. He cemented this position last month with startlingly crass comments about racism in football. Racist abuse between players on the pitch, he declared, should be forgotten about at the end of the match and resolved with a handshake. Coming as close as he ever has to admitting a mistake, Blatter then sought to "clarify" his comments, but the damage had been done.
It was Blatter's second appearance on the front pages in a matter of days, FIFA having been furiously denounced for not allowing England to wear shirts with a poppy motif for their friendly with Spain on November 12, the day before Remembrance Sunday. FIFA rules prohibit national teams from wearing emblems that are deemed to be political or religious messages; if England's poppies were allowed, a FIFA spokesman said, it would "open the door to similar initiatives". A compromise was reached with the players wearing poppies on their armbands and tracksuits. Some went further in having a poppy design stitched onto their boots, just above the manufacturer's logo.
FIFA often deserve the criticism directed at them but they were completely right to hold their ground in the face of shrill complaints. After a fraught year, the FA seem to be pursuing detente with the international body and so had to be prodded into demanding that the ban be lifted. Having done so, they were promptly backed by David Cameron and Prince William, whose joint standing among international football administrators can be gauged by their contribution to England's 2018 World Cup bid, which collected two votes, one of them from the English delegate. The pro-poppy cause wasn't helped by two members of the far-right English Defence League – a group founded by a convicted football hooligan – who scaled the roof of FIFA House with a banner that claimed "our dead and wounded" were being disrespected. This stunt was given wide coverage in the English press, but there was relatively little said about it in the Daily Mail, which had led the protest against what it characterised as FIFA's "ridiculous stance". The policy may be challenged again soon in Argentina, where a group of politicians have tabled a motion calling for their national team jerseys to have Las Malvinas Son Argentinas (the Falkland Islands belong to Argentina) printed next to the badge. It is unlikely that this will receive a strongly worded message of support from Cameron.
Football matches, both domestic and international, have been staged close to Remembrance Sunday since the First World War ended 93 years ago. But poppy displays at matches only became a major issue in 2009, when the Mail began a campaign for football clubs to wear them in the fixtures nearest to the day of commemoration. Eighteen Premier League clubs fell into line, the exceptions being Manchester United and Liverpool, who were duly attacked by the Mail for "standing out for all the wrong reasons to the vast television audience in Britain and around the globe". For the right-wing press and the government, Remembrance weekend now has less to do with honouring the dead than supporting the current activities of the armed forces.
There have always been links drawn between football and warfare with some British managers under the impression that they are fighting battles by proxy – it is still "tin hats on" before a difficult game and there can be no higher praise for a player than that he is "someone you would like to have with you in the trenches". But at a time when there is widespread and vehement opposition to the UK's role in various wars overseas, the ties between football and the military seem, paradoxically, to be growing.
The army's physical presence at football used to be restricted to providing the half-time band at Cup finals. Now many clubs offer reduced-price tickets to members of the armed forces as a standard concession, while the Ticket For Troops initiative is supported by several prominent figures in football. At every Wembley final there is a series of formalities involving the trophy being delivered to the stadium by military helicopter, then guarded by soldiers who march it to the centre-circle for the presentation.
As one of the world's most popular public spectacles, football matches are open to being used in support of various causes, but scenes more often associated with authoritarian states are now commonplace here. The ultimately demeaning row about poppies is part of that process. No one would object to a minute's silence to remember the war dead, but anything else should be a matter of personal choice. Even Blatter can grasp that.
From WSC 299 January 2012