National Soccer Teams in Britain Fight to Wear Memorial Poppies – New York Times

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Chris Brunt of West Bromwich Albion, an English Premier League team, at a recent match. Players for national teams, however, have been told by soccer’s international governing body that poppies, traditionally worn in Britain leading up to Remembrance Day, are not allowed on their uniforms.

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Carl Recine/Reuters

LONDON — And so the politicization of dress continues. Now it is the poppy — the sartorial commemoration of soldiers who lost their lives in wartime that Britons wear in the days before Remembrance Day, Nov. 11 — that has generated controversy.

An estimated 45 million poppies will be distributed in 2016, according to the BBC, worn on television and in Parliament, schools, hospitals, railway stations and offices. They range from simple paper cutout versions of the red flower that grew amid the mud and chaos of the World War I battlefields in northern France to bejeweled and silk versions with hefty prices that appear on the pages of glossy magazines or adorn celebrities during the fall awards show season.

But now soccer players have been told they cannot wear the symbols on the field as England takes on Scotland.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the world soccer governing body known as FIFA, has said players must not wear poppies at a friendly game between the two national teams set for Friday.

“Britain is not the only country that has been suffering from the result of war,” Fatma Samoura, the organization’s new secretary general, said during a BBC interview. “The only question is why are we doing exceptions for just one country and not the rest of the world.”

Ms. Samoura added that as the rules dictated that political, religious or commercial symbols could not be displayed on national-team uniforms, poppies had no place, either. (Professional organizations, like the English Premier League, can set their own rules.)

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Prime Minister Theresa May attaching a poppy to her jacket last month. She has condemned the soccer body’s ban on the practice.

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Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Her statement was roundly criticized by the British establishment, including Prime Minister Theresa May, who shared that view during the prime minister’s question time last week.

“I think the stance that has been taken by FIFA is utterly outrageous,” Mrs. May said. “Our football players want to recognize and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security. I think it is absolutely right that they should be able to do so.”

Adding a jibe at FIFA, which has been plagued by allegations of corruption, Mrs. May added: “Before they start telling us what to do, they jolly well ought to sort their own house out.”

This is hardly the first occasion in which sports, politics and fashion have collided on the playing field; see the furor in the United States this summer when female basketball players wore black T-shirts to raise awareness of the shooting deaths of black men by the police and the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers. And in 2011, when the FIFA rule was invoked to ban the poppy, the organization backed down, allowing English players to wear black armbands appliquéd with poppies during a game.

Nor is it the first time that the poppy, a simple wardrobe accessory originally intended to encourage collective remembrance across borders, has proved socially divisive. When the symbol was introduced in 1921, the poppy represented mourning and regret. But almost a century later, as Britain moves into an era of heightened nationalism after its vote to leave the European Union, some believe the emblem’s meaning has shifted toward an institutionalized patriotism. And public figures who question poppy-pinning, and the shifting values and cultural pressures it can set off, are also coming under fire.

Many Britons today believe that the poppy is charged with a kind of military triumphalism. James McClean, who plays professionally for the West Bromwich Albion soccer team in England, has refused to wear a poppy for several years, saying it represents all the conflicts the British Army has been involved in — including those in his home, Northern Ireland.

Despite the swirling controversy, the soccer associations of England and Scotland have announced that their national squads will defy the ban and wear the black armbands with poppies despite the threat of possible sanctions.

Thus the next round of debate about what and when personal beliefs should be publicly displayed through dress — well, kicks off.

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