The picture above is a memorial in Flanders to the legendary (if somewhat disputed) ‘No Man’s Land’ football match that apparently took place between Allied and German troops on Christmas Day, 1914.
It says a great deal about the universal love for the game of football that sworn enemies in a conflict which eventually claimed over 16 million lives with a further 20 million wounded between 1914 and 1918 are believed to have spent much of their temporary truce playing the game.
The poppy was adopted 90 years ago in 1921 by the (now Royal) British Legion in remembrance to those who died in the conflict. This simple, powerful symbol has been a fixture of British life ever since, with the annual Poppy Appeal raising millions of pounds in support of current and former members of the Armed Forces and their dependents.
In response to the suggestion that the England football team were to have a poppy applied onto their shirts for the friendly fixture against Spain at Wembley on Saturday November 12, 2011, the day before Remembrance Sunday, FIFA refused the FA permission, stating that:
“FIFA’s regulations regarding players’ equipment are that they should not carry any political, religious or commercial messages.”
Sepp Blatter and FIFA make much of the importance of the global football family – the following names were members of that family and represent just a handful of the footballers from the English leagues who died in the 1914-1918 conflict:
- Wilfred Bartrop (Barnsley) – Royal Field Artillery (played in the 1910 and 1912 FA Cup finals).
- Herbert Dersley (Croydon Common) – 17th Middlesex Regiment.
- William Jonas (Orient) – 17th Middlesex Regiment.
- Oscar Linkson (Manchester United) – 17th Middlesex Regiment.
- Richard McFadden (Orient) – 17th Middlesex Regiment.
- Freddie Wheatcroft (Fulham and England) – East Surrey Regiment.
- Walter Tull (Northampton) – 17th Middlesex Regiment and 23rd Middlesex Regiment. The first black man to be commissioned in the British Army.
- Donald Simpson Bell (Bradford Park Avenue) – 9th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment.
- Joseph Smith (Chesterfield) – Middlesex Regiment.
- Evelyn Henry Lintott (Leeds and England) – 15th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment.
Two players capped by England and a two-time FA Cup finalist – surely something for the FA to consider?
As you will note, many of these men served with the 17th Middlesex Regiment. This is a battalion that was set up to include footballers and football supporters. They were commanded by Major Frank Buckley, who later went on to manage Wolves.
It is almost impossible to imagine any current professional footballer or manager leaving their club to serve in the Armed Forces, but as the list above shows many did and lost their lives.
One name on that list, Donald Simpson Bell, is widely thought to be the first professional footballer to enlist in the Army, and remains the only player to be awarded the Victoria Cross. He died less than a week after being awarded the medal at the age of 25, younger than Wayne Rooney is now.
Just try to think of your club losing a number of its first team players in Afghanistan now. Difficult, isn’t it?
This does not include players of other nationalities who died in the Great War, including Welsh, Scots and Irish footballers who would have played for English clubs under the jurisdiction of the English football authorities. And consider the millions who died that were just football fans, or involved with clubs in some way (a post-war Spurs handbook makes reference to 11 staff who died, and there are indications that some clubs lost up to 40 men who enlisted during World War I).
This is just one conflict, albeit the one synonymous with the Poppy Appeal but many others linked with football in some way, whether players or fans, have served and often paid with their lives in other wars since 1918. Many are still serving in Iraq and Afghanistan – thousands of football fans amongst them. Their families and descendants are also supported by the Royal British Legion.
In the simplest terms, the Poppy Appeal and football in Great Britain are inexorably linked. The FA should not follow FIFA’s disrespectful instructions and should ensure that the poppy appears on the England team’s shirts next Saturday.
Why? The ordinary football community often finds itself at odds with the views of FIFA, but their statement about England players and the Poppy Appeal is factually incorrect. The Royal British Legion is neither a political nor a religious organisation – it is a charity, operating on a not-for-profit basis. If their view that showing the emblem of the appeal on a footballer’s shirt is a commercial message, then FIFA’s regulations are woefully out of touch with the views of millions who both support the appeal and watch, play and love the game of football.
With this in mind, I would ask all football fans, irrespective of club or national loyalties to contact the FA (details on the link below) to politely express their views on FIFA’s Poppy Ban and to urge English football’s governing body to defy it:
Please forward this article to all the football fans you know – if you are using Twitter, please use the hashtag #poppiesforengland.
And the Christmas Day game mentioned at the start of this article? Popular belief suggests that the Germans won, of course.
(With many thanks to Andrew Holmes, @agh57 who provided the factual information for this piece.)