FIFA’s evolving stance on commemorative symbols: The poppy appeal case

Published 21 February 2018 By: Neeraj Thomas

Poppy on table

On 11 November 2016, England played Scotland in a FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier match at Wembley Stadium. The match was not particularly memorable for anything that happened on the pitch (at least for those of us north of the border). Rather it was the furore that followed the match that was most widely reported. In particular, the fact the Scottish and English players wore black armbands with a poppy symbol, given the match’s proximity to Remembrance Sunday sparked fierce debate. As many readers will be aware, poppies are traditionally regarded as a symbol of remembrance of soldiers who have died during wartime, especially in both world wars.1

There were numerous media reports leading up to the game querying whether or not the English and Scottish players would indeed wear poppies to mark the occasion2. Many commentators claimed it was the right thing to do (Theresa May classified FIFA’s attitude towards poppies as “utterly outrageous3 whilst others questioned whether the risk was really worth it4). The risk was, of course, disciplinary sanctions being imposed by FIFA.

In light of the broader tensions between sport and politics, this article considers FIFA’s case against the home nation Football Associations for wearing and/or displaying poppies during international matches, and their subsequent change in approach towards such commemorative symbols. Specifically, it looks at:

  • FIFA’s rules and regulations preventing “political symbols” and the lack of specification

  • The meaning of “political

  • The meaning of “equipment

  • The first instance decision against the home nation FAs

  • The appeal decision and CAS proceedings

  • FIFA’s change in approach towards commemorative symbols

  • Comment on the tensions between sport and politics

The author acts for the Scottish FA.


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Neeraj Thomas

Neeraj Thomas

Neeraj Thomas is a Senior Associate and leads the Sports Law team at Burness Paull LLP.

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