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How a flower became a political football

Saturday 10th November 2018
The memorial for Sunday, Bloody Sunday in Derry.
The memorial for Sunday, Bloody Sunday in Derry.

There's an old saying that football and politics should never mix. FIFA take it so seriously that when they perceive political involvement in football they will suspend the national association. For the most part, the two are kept apart in England. However, when November comes around, suddenly the two collide with the poppy becoming a political football.

Over the last decade or so, the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal has found its way into football. It began with a few clubs, but since 2012, every Premier League team has worn the poppy on their shirts. James McClean, of Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic and Stoke City, has always refused to wear the poppy. This season, he was joined by Manchester United's Nemanja Matic.

For many Britons, the poppy is a symbol to recall soldiers who perished in World War 1 and World War 2. However, on the Royal British Legions website, there is a section discussing "What We Remember." Under "Recent Conflicts" section there is a list of times British troops have been deployed outside the two World Wars. Among that number are the Northern Irish troubles and the Balkan Wars.

Britain has a long colonial history which included Ireland and now Northern Ireland. Alongside their NATO partners, they have also participated in many conflicts including the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. Both McClean and Matic are from areas that were involved in these conflicts, which is the obvious and well-documented reason neither feels able to support an appeal supporting this cause.

It's understandable British people will feel passionate about poppies. They're remembering their own who fought for Britain and British causes. What seems to be forgotten is that every time the British army drops a bomb or fires a bullet, someone's on the receiving end.

McClean's home city of Derry is the biggest city in Northern Ireland outside Belfast. It houses a large nationalist population that provided opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland. One of the worst days in the troubles occurred in Derry on 30 January, 1972. Fourteen unarmed civilians were shot and killed and a similar number injured by British soldiers in what has become known as Bloody Sunday or the Bogside Massacre.

McClean is too young to remember the event itself but the people of Derry and families of those who died fought for years to expose the truth. To this day, it remains an event that traumatises the city. There is little doubt that the people of Derry suffered a huge injustice. It has since been acknowledged by David Cameron, who issued a formal state apology in his time as Prime Minister.

Matic grew up in war-torn Serbia. As a child, he remembers NATO bombs being dropped in his hometown of Vrelo. Even for an adult, that would be frightening. For a child, it must have been absolutely terrifying. It clearly left its mark for the player to bring it up 20 years later.

McClean and Matic are probably not the only players who see the poppy differently to how most Britons view it. More may decide against wearing it in the future. If they do, it would be best for all concerned if a level of understanding is used rather than some of the vitriol McClean, in particular, has absorbed over the last seven years.

The poppy isn't going anywhere, nor should it. British clubs wearing something to commemorate fallen Britons is not a problem. However, it should be recognised that football is a global game. The Premier League brings in a lot of money from abroad. Fans pay to see the best players from all over the world. Some have a different perspective on history to those in the stands. The sooner there is an understanding rather than intolerance, the sooner politics can take it's ugly face away from our beautiful game. For most, it can't come a moment too soon. 

Northern Ireland Premiership Table
Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.

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