LONDON – Every November, Britain is awash with bright red poppies to honour the nation’s war dead.
Walk down any high street and you’ll see the small paper and plastic flowers pinned to countless coats and jackets. Turn on the television and you’ll see politicians and TV personalities wearing them ahead of Nov. 11, when Commonwealth countries pay tribute to members of the armed forces who have died on duty since the First World War.
But this week, the apparently innocuous little badge has been at the centre of a furious argument involving world football’s ruling body, Britain’s prime minister and even the royal family.
The dispute was apparently resolved Wednesday when England’s Football Association and FIFA reached a compromise that will let England players wear the poppy on black armbands when they play Spain in a friendly at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
“While continuing to adhere to the laws of the game, wearing the poppy on the armband does ensure the poppy will be visible throughout the game,” the FA said. “The FA welcomes FIFA’s decision and thanks them for agreeing to this.”
The deal came only after howls of outrage from Britain’s politicians, widespread indignation from the British media and a letter to FIFA President Sepp Blatter from Prince William.
It all started when the FA checked with FIFA that its players could wear shirts embroidered with a red poppy for the match.
FIFA turned down the request because of its long-standing ban on political, religious, personal or commercial messages on official uniforms and equipment – prompting a predictably angry response in Britain.
“This seems outrageous,” Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday before the compromise was announced. “The idea that wearing a poppy to remember those who have given their lives for our freedom is a political act is absurd. Wearing a poppy is an act of huge respect and national pride.”
FIFA had said it would allow both England and Wales, which plays Norway in Cardiff on Saturday, to observe a minute’s silence before their matches but remained steadfast in its ban on the poppy.
That wasn’t enough for Cameron and the FA, even after the association issued a list of 12 other ways in which it plans to mark Remembrance Day – which falls on Friday.
Prince William, known as the Duke of Cambridge, wrote to Blatter in support of the FA’s request. Whether his effort had any effect is unclear, but his sentiment was clear.
“The duke has written to FIFA in his capacity as president of the FA to express his dismay at their decision,” William’s office said in a statement. “The duke’s strong view is that the poppy is a universal symbol of remembrance, which has no political, religious or commercial connotations.
“The duke has asked FIFA to apply an exception in this special circumstance.”
Cameron also wrote to Blatter arguing that the symbol was non-political, while government sports minister Hugh Robertson sent a similar letter to FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke.
FIFA’s rationale that the poppy could be used as a political symbol was apparently justified Wednesday when two men claiming to belong to a right-wing nationalist group – the English Defence League – staged a protest on the roof of the body’s Swiss headquarters in Zurich.
A member of the same group was convicted last year of hurling abuse at Muslims during a soldiers’ homecoming parade.
“We regret to inform you that accepting such initiatives would open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world, jeopardizing the neutrality of football,” FIFA said. “Therefore, we confirm herewith that the suggested embroidery on the match shirt cannot be authorized.”
The wrangling continued through Wednesday until the FA announced that a compromise had been reached.
England players will also wear poppy-embossed jackets during Saturday’s pre-match national anthems, while a poppy wreath will also be placed on the Wembley field prior to the match.
The poppy is an official mark of remembrance in many countries because the flowers were the first plants that rose from the barren battlefields after the First World War.
England plays in November every year, beating Argentina 3-2 in 2005 on the same date as this weekend’s match against Spain and even playing on Remembrance Day in 1987. England didn’t wear poppies in either of those matches.
But this year’s furor was big enough to overshadow coverage of investigations into allegations that England captain John Terry racially abused an opponent. It also made headlines at a time when one of Cameron’s ministers is under pressure over a relaxation of border controls.
The teams playing in rugby league’s Four Nations tournament have had no such problems, with England, Wales, Australia and New Zealand all set to wear poppies this weekend.
England plays New Zealand in Hull on Saturday, while Australia and Wales meet in Wrexham on Sunday.