Saturday, 12 November 2011

FIFA poppycock

I’ve never been a fan of a phenomenon that has emerged in recent years – the collective baring of the soul or mourning by society. The first time I remember being particularly uncomfortable with it was back in 1997, when Diana (no surname needed) died. Of course, it was a tragic event, but the prolonged national reaction seemed to me to be well, frankly, a bit over the top. In fact, I found aspects of it as obscene as the hounding of Diana by sections of the national media when she was alive. As is often the case in current affairs, Private Eye summed matters up best with a front cover that earned the magazine harsh criticism and high praise in equal measure.

Since then, like lemmings, the public has fixated on a succession of tragedies involving famous people, in a way that I think is out of proportion with the incidents (awful though they clearly are for the individuals and families directly involved). I wonder why this is the case and although I’m sure that there is no definitive answer, theories spring to mind. Maybe it’s because, in an increasingly secular society, the lack of genuine faith in God has to be replaced by some sort of congregation. Or perhaps the proliferation of media channels, social networks and the ever increasing availability of enormous amounts of content about famous people, means that Joe and Joanne Public now (mistakenly) believe that they actually have a real connection to celebrities. Whatever the cause, I don’t like the effect.

This group behaviour extends beyond moments of grief and mourning. Like lynch mobs, we the public fixate on emotive issues and vent our collective spleen with great virtual force. It’s so easy to do these days – the technology at our disposal almost demands it. So we respond to an incident or call to action and a wave of fury and indignation spreads across the web like an inelegant take on a murmuration of starlings. No-one quite knows why, but we feel compelled do it anyway, on a range of disparate topics. It’s really quite bizarre and can be very unpleasant.

It’s for the reasons above that I started questioning myself earlier this week, when I found that I was in a rage about FIFA’s response to the English FA’s request for players to be allowed to wear poppies on their shirts during this weekend’s friendly match against Spain. I buy and wear a poppy every year, yet I frown on those who display them too early and I wholly disapprove of the recent trend that has seen publicity hungry celebrities pinning ever more elaborate red tributes to themselves (most obviously displayed during the last couple of years on the drivel that is X Factor).

I certainly don’t object to people donating a fortune to the cause, but using the poppy as a charity fashion statement is not very clever. At the same time, if people choose not to wear poppies, I respect their right to make that decision (even if I don’t agree with it), and I do get annoyed when people aggressively preach about the subject on social networks. In short, I think my views and behaviour are balanced, respectful and suitably restrained.

Yet, despite that, there I was ranting about FIFA to family, friends and colleagues, and expressing my disgust and disdain for the organisation on Twitter and Facebook. I have just about calmed down now. In truth, the reason for my anger was not so much rooted in the basic decision by FIFA (crass and misguided though I think that was), it was more due to the way in which football’s world governing body articulated it. I read FIFA’s various official pronouncements on the matter with increasing fury. To me, two aspects were evident.

First, FIFA demonstrated absolutely no sensitivity to the history of the poppy and showed no awareness of what the symbol means to so many millions of people. The poppy is not pinned to our metaphorical hearts to nail our political colours to any mast (yes, English Defence League, please go away), it simply represents our gratitude to those men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our country. The poppy makes no judgement on whether a conflict was just or not – it says ‘thank you’ and ‘we will remember you’, and the money raised by the Royal British Legion by selling poppies is channelled to the right places. FIFA’s bland, corporate statements on the subject made no mention of this crucial point. Surely, even in refusing the FA’s request, the individuals who run the game could have found a way to acknowledge that.

The second aspect that I detected in FIFA’s handling of this matter was that the organisation relished being able to tell the FA where to go. Someone, somewhere up the ample food chain at FIFA was taking great delight in refusing the request. I say ‘someone’, but suspect there were several people revelling in their moment.

Perhaps I should relax. After all, this incident has given the poppy extra oxygen that has fuelled even more publicity than usual and every camera will make a point of picking out those black armbands with poppies at the weekend. They will appear in every newspaper and on every TV channel. That’s great – maybe it will even help us to educate a new generation about what the wearing of the poppy is all about. As the two world wars recede further into the past and there are now very few people who can directly pass on their rich memories to young people, we need to take every opportunity to remind them of the debt we still owe today.

So, yes, some good can come out of this fiasco. Nevertheless, FIFA has still plunged further down in my estimation than ever before, which is something that I didn’t think was possible.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll take a deep breath, clear my mind of that annoying organisation and fill it with appropriate thoughts of remembrance. I’ll do it quietly and the only visible sign will be one modest red poppy.