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The poppy: Significance, controversy and why England will be wearing it against Scotland

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1.04K   //    03 Nov 2016, 16:14 IST
England midfielder Frank Lampard wears poppy symbol
England players will wear the poppy symbol on their jerseys

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
Scarce heard amid the guns below
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”

This is an excerpt from John McCrae’s immortal poem “In Flanders Fields.” The significance of this poem, in particular, the history and impact it still has today is perhaps the most profound testament to the fact that poetry, somehow, stands the test of time.

Today, it has found it’s way into modern day football. English clubs throughout the Premier League are donning the symbol of the “poppy” with managers wearing it on their coats and players on their jerseys, in remembrance and honour. The English national team, for their next game against Scotland, will also wear this symbol on their armband.

But what is the flower’s significance? And why are players and managers wearing it?

The poppy flower (popaver rhoeas) grows naturally across Western Europe in disturbed conditions. More specifically and coincidentally, on barren lands that were once ravaged by war.

In the early 19th century it was the Napoleonic wars that were fought in France and Flanders (Then Northern Belgium) which led to countless deaths of soldiers. After the wars were over, blood red poppies began to grow, surprisingly, out of the wasteland from the earth that contained the bodies of slain soldiers buried underneath it. The same thing happened again after World War I.

In Flanders Fields

In 1914, during World War I and the first battle of Ypres, a young Canadian(then part of the British Commonwealth) officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was killed by an exploding German artillery shell. Helmer was a close friend of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae who served in the same artillery unit as him. After Helmer’s burial, McCrae drafted the first version of this timeless poem. 


Arsenal v Burnley
A remembrance poppy is displayed next to the Arsenal logo ahead of their game against Burnley

It wasn’t until Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae immortalized the symbol of the poppy through his poem that it became the symbol for “Remembrance Day.” Remembrance Day informally called “Poppy Day” is a memorial day observed by British nations and the Commonwealth, in honor of those valiant soldiers who lost their lives in the various battles fought during those wars and the proceeding wars as well.

In the United Kingdom, it is on the Sunday closest to 11th November that 2 minutes’ silence is observed. In the days preceding Remembrance Day, it has become common for football players and managers to wear artificial poppies sewn into their shirts on the request of the Royal British Legion, an act, which has caused much controversy


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In November 2011, before England played Spain, the English players were to wear poppies on their jerseys. However, FIFA turned down the proposal citing that it would “open the door to similar initiatives" around the world which would "jeopardize the neutrality of football." Prince William and then British Prime Minister David Cameron rebuked FIFA’s decision saying that they would back all players who ignored the ban and wore the poppies.

The FA came up with a diplomatic solution to this and suggested that poppies would be worn before kickoff while black armbands would be worn by the English players during the game and that there would also be a minute’s silence during the game. Finally, FIFA allowed English, Welsh, and Scottish players to wear black armbands with poppies on them. 

More recently, nearly all the Premier League clubs have displayed the symbol publicly both on social media and at their respective stadiums. 

England vs Scotland 2016 and FIFA’s warning

England play Scotland on the 11th of November at Wembley in a fixture that pits the old rivals against each other. The English players are all set to defy FIFA again this time around with the FA confirming that England will wear poppies against Scotland on Remembrance Sunday despite FIFA’s ban on them doing so. 

Take a look at the FA’s statement below:

While Chairman of the FA, George Clarke, said, “My personal opinion and actually the same opinion I hold as the chair of the FA is that of course, we should wear poppies.” 

“We’re commemorating millions of people who gave their lives in wars over the last 100 years and they deserve that, and the people who lost relatives deserve that, and that’s our plan,” he added.

"We're balancing respect for the fallen and their families, with respect for the governing body, and we're negotiating in good faith with FIFA to try and find a solution, but there will be poppies at Wembley,” he confirmed. 

FIFA have stated that anything worn by nations that could be deemed “religious or political” are barred under FIFA equipment regulations.  

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Current British Prime Minister, Theresa May was also vocal about this gesture and took a jibe at FIFA, specifically their recent corruption allegations suggesting that their decision was “utterly outrageous” and that they should “sort their own house out” before telling others what to do. 

In world football, the significance and history behind the donning of the poppy symbol as a gesture of remembrance of the lives lost in war is perhaps a fitting way to commemorate those soldiers’ lives, especially when displayed to a worldwide audience. However, one could argue that FIFA and football’s neutral identity could be put at risk by this.

That being said, the FA and England have sent out a clear message to FIFA that poppies will be worn come November 11th

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