The Truth Looks Different From Here

by Sheryl Anderson.

FIFA (the international governing body of football) have decided to open disciplinary proceedings against Wales and Northern Ireland after fans wore poppies during the World Cup qualifiers against Serbia and Azerbaijan respectively. This comes a short time after the English and Scottish Football Associations were similarly charged over breaching Law 4 of FIFA’s ‘Laws of the Game’. Law 4, for those who do not know, governs ‘the players’ equipment’ and is fundamentally concerned with what players can wear. Part of the Law states that ‘The basic compulsory equipment must not contain any political, religious or personal statements.’ The dispute with FIFA has been about whether or not the wearing of the poppy, constitutes a ‘political, religious or personal statement.’ FIFA thinks it does and so issued a prohibition for those British teams playing on or around November 11th. All four nations now face the possibility of a fine and even a points deduction, thus affecting their chances of qualifying for the World Cup

There seems to be range of opinion about the rights and wrongs of the issue. At one end there are those who say that the poppy is a legitimate memorial symbol honouring the fallen, and FIFA is simply wrong in applying Law 4 in this way. At the other end are those who say football must never be appropriated by any nation, group, or individual to champion a particular cause, regardless of how worthy or noble that cause might be; so FIFA is absolutely right. Somewhere in the mix there are also those saying, it is just a poppy and football is just a game, so who cares, get a life.

It is the strength of the feelings, on all sides, that is so interesting. Earlier in November, Theresa May criticised FIFA for rejecting the request from the England and Scotland players to wear armbands featuring poppies. The Welsh first minister has called the charges ludicrous and the Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley, is arguing that FIFA should ‘see sense’ and drop the disciplinary action, as though FIFA is being melodramatic. Yet signs and symbols are of huge significance in human life and culture. The fact that politicians have joined in the controversy demonstrates the perceived national attachment to certain symbols. After all, this row has happened specifically in relation to British national football teams.

However, FIFA has an international responsibility. The swastika, for example, is a sacred symbol of good fortune on the Indian sub-continent. Should the Indian football team ever qualify for the World Cup, would it be acceptable for them to wear swastika armbands? In a global context and a diverse society agreeing on precisely the meaning and value of any representational artefact is a serious challenge. Better to have a rule that is applied wholesale.

This time of year is saturated with particular symbols, images and activities. Families and communities have there own Christmas customs and practices – and they really matter. In some households there are heated debates annually about when to put up the decorations, when and how to open the presents, what to eat, when to eat it, what to wear and what to do.  Christian communities similarly have their own events and rituals: the Carol Service, the Nativity, the Advent candles. We know it is Christmas because, to a greater or lesser extent, we do Christmas things in a Christmassy way; we invest certain items, activities and behaviours with the meaning of Christmas – whatever we understand that to be.

It does seem that there is a fundamental human need to mark special occasions with ceremony and ritual. Traditions, (as at Christmas, or Remembrance), and symbols, (like Advent candles and poppies), are behaviours and objects that help us order and make sense of our common life, and manage our fear of change. We gain a sense of security from the fact that, whatever else, this experience will be sufficiently familiar that we will know how to locate ourselves, what to do and how to feel. This understanding might help those who resist change, and those who feel threatened by the symbols and rituals of others.

The theologian and professor of history at Yale University, Jaroslav Pelikan, once said, ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” [1]. In a time of global uncertainty and doubt, as Christians prepare to celebrate the revelation of an unchanging God who is abiding truth, in the form of the person of Jesus Christ, we might find it helpful to remember the distinction.

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities; Yale University Press

5 thoughts on “The Truth Looks Different From Here”

  1. This is a case of a powerful governing body imposing its will on the people with total disregard for freedom of choice. It should be a personal choice whether to wear a poppy or not and a personal choice whether to take offence or not. We don’t need to agree on it or fight about it, we simply need to respect the diversity of opinion.


    1. Thanks Sheryl. This raises so many questions. Red poppies carry a huge weight of symbolism. Their multi-valence means that different people see them differently; or the same people see them differently at different times. (For the importance of multi-valence in understanding symbols see Anthony P. Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community, (London: Routledge, 1985). Among other things he writes, “The sharing of symbol is not necessarily the same as the sharing of meaning.” p. 16). So red poppies can stand for for blood and for death, for pride, for sadness, for waste and pointlessness, for memory, for something good coming from something bad, for peace, for redemption, or for freedom even. That meaning will change with context, and therein lies part of the problem. I wonder if England had been playing Germany wearing poppies, what meaning would poppies have carried? And if Germans had wanted to wear a symbol representing their war dead and FIFA said no, how would we then respond? With indignation or with cheers? As Yvonne says, there is also a question about respecting a diversity of opinions. The problem here is that values behind poppies encroach on individual choice just as much as the values behind FIFA’s judgment. If one member of a national team wanted not to wear a red poppy, or maybe replace the red one by a white one, they would severely constrained in their personal choice because of popular opinion. And they might well not even be allowed to follow the choice of their own conscience. On the other hand, by not allowing any such symbols, FIFA’s rule allows a space for people not to have a particular symbol or interpretation imposed on them, either as a player having to wear a symbol, or as a spectator or other player receiving the impact of the symbol on themselves. Overall I find myself in agreement with FIFA’s application of their rule. The theological question this leaves open is to what extent red poppies (or white poppies) are interpreted as religious or Christian symbols, and what such interpretation says about our views of war.


  2. I was recently a part of a conversation in which two Christians from Northern Ireland, one Catholic and one Protestant, discussed the meanings of the poppy. There, in the 100th anniversary year of both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising, the manner in which violent events are commemorated is highly political. One thing the two could agree on — while the poppy may not be provocative to some, it is a highly-charged political symbol to others. Yes, Sheryl, the truth does look different from here, and here…


  3. If FIFA don’t want the wearing of poppies, then why allow black armbands or a minutes clapping or silence in remembrance. It appears that some of the comments are because the writers have a problem with poppies! Someone said, without the people the poppies remember, there would not be a FIFA or even a place for people to make comments.


  4. I have a problem with red poppies and do not wear one. Why would I wear a symbol that honours war and is produced by an organisation that takes sponsorship from an arms company? I wear a white poppy, the symbol of piece which surely is something we all wish so that there are no wars. Yet people are critical of this act, including Governments, apparently Mrs Thatcher was extremely derisive, so where is the respect that Yvonne so rightly mentions?
    At least FIFA’s rule makes for consistency which is not seen elsewhere.


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