In the Spring of 1915, poppies flowered on war ravaged fields across central Europe. On the 9th of November of 1918 (two days before the Armistice was declared), an American secretary named Moina Michael read Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae's poem, ‘On Flanders Fields'. Inspired by its rousing ending - If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields - Ms. Michael vowed to ‘keep the faith' always with those who died by wearing a red poppy. On the 11th of November 1921, the Royal British Legion adopted the poppy as the symbol of their inaugural Remembrance Day appeal, now the poppy appeal.
In November 2008, Arsenal beat Manchester United 2-1 at the Emirates. Samir Nasri scored both Arsenal goals; Rafael da Silva scored United's late consolation. That game was made notable (and relatable to the paragraph above) by the poppy the Arsenal players wore on the front of their shirts. That had never happened before.
In 2008/09, four Premiership clubs had the poppy emblazoned on their shirts in the run up to Rembrance Sunday, the following season saw fourteen poppies. Last season, and this, every Premier League side has fulfilled its early November fixtures with players poppied. This increase can be attributed to a media campaign: the Daily Mailinstituted the Premier League poppy club in 2009.
That campaign having been won, the Mail needed a new target for this season. From within the crosshairs, some Football Association suit (showing the sort of foresight that suggests he/she may be employed in the wrong institution) acted fast to shift the blame. This was handed off this week to the ever-sticky hands of FIFA who, in adherence to the long standing rule that shirts not ‘carry any political, religious or personal messages', have refused England permission to wear poppies on their shirts (compromise has since been reached; in addition to a gratuitous list of marks of respect, England's players will wear black armbands WITH poppies embroidered onto them) when they face Spain in Saturday night's Wembley friendly.
As an aside, I understand that the stadium needs to be paid for and lucrative friendlies against international football's biggest and best effectively fulfill that purpose but surely playing every single ‘big game' at home is detrimental to England's tournament chances.
The tabloid press, engaged in its annual crusade against non-poppy wearers, may act otherwise but the decision to wear a poppy remains a ‘personal' one. In the context of Britain's remembrance conscription, this has been ignored and FIFA have had their villain status enshrined. They were subject, in fact, to a rooftop demonstration by the neo-Fascist English Defence League (a sure indication that the real enemy is perhaps elsewhere).
In the rush to condemn FIFA, the fact that it has taken the FA exactly 90 years to start to sort this out has been ignored too. In terms of PR goals, this is an unlikely beauty: Nigel Winterburn against Chelsea or David Narey against Brasil (in spite of what Jimmy Hill may have said).
Stung by damning footage of their icon swearily lambasting fans after drawing with Algeria and a few of the players sipping beer and smoking cigars after losing to Germany, the Football Association is working hard to turn England into a ‘club' of which its punters can be proud.
And there is nothing wrong with that; national teams should make their fans proud. They should do it, though, by playing football not by pandering to the nationalistic whims of a morally bankrupt right-wing press (and Twitter.com's Jack Wilshere). Gareth Barry with a poppy pasted onto his shirt is a patriotic hero in the eyes of theMail this weekend, but not this summer.
This summer, when he is outrun by a delicate little foreign lad ‘who would stuggle with the pace and power of the premier league', his Remembrance Day heroism will be forgotten and he'll be a national disgrace again.
This, finally, is the problem with the FA's campaign. It is, at heart, another example of the short-term glory hunting that has been the scourge of the erstwhile golden generation. A symptom of the money for nothing, easy credit culture, England will go nowhere while Objective A remains the placation of a fundamentally hostile and reactionary right wing press.
This week the FA invited reporters to their imminent centre of excellence at Burton. This is a long-overdue catch-up act which, it is hoped, will allow England to develop footballers of a quality sufficient to actually trouble those being generated (with seemingly effortless consistency) in Spain and Germany. Instead of pursuing a nationalistic agenda the necessary endpoint of which sees England a goal down with a few minutes remaining and Capello turning to give Michael Owen the nod, they should turn their newly dynamic PR machine towards Burton and start talking about the internationalistic players it is going to produce. That, after all, is a Football Association's job.