The often uneasy crossover between sport and politics has again been thrown into the spotlight this week, with the news that FIFA has turned down a request from the English and Scottish Football Associations for their players to wear armbands featuring poppies when they play each other on Armistice Day.

FIFA’s decision has caused uproar. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has described FIFA’s decision as utterly outrageous, while MP Damian Collins, Chair of the Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, has written to FIFA President Gianni Infantino and has asked FIFA to reverse the poppy ban in respect of the match between England and Scotland. These dissenting voices are especially strong given that FIFA permitted England to wear black armbands embroidered with poppies in November 2011, after Prince William and David Cameron appealed to it.

Yet with the exception of that occasion, FIFA’s position regarding the division of politics and football has generally been clear and consistent. Sepp Blatter, the former President of FIFA, stated on a number of occasions throughout his tenure that football should never be used for political messages. This position is crystallised in Law 4 of The Laws of the Game, which states as follows:

“Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images. Players must not reveal undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer`s logo. For any infringement the player and/or the team will be sanctioned by the competition organiser, national football association or to be justified by FIFA.”

Law 4 is clear: football players are prohibited from wearing any equipment (including undergarments) that features political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images. It is a provision which encompasses a wide range of behaviour and is not designed solely to prevent political messages from entering the field of play. The following incidents would all fall under the remit of Law 4 (which has been amended since they took place):

  • At the end of the 2007 UEFA Champions League Final, Brazilian forward Kaka celebrated his side’s victory by displaying a t-shirt that stated “I Belong to Jesus”.
  • In October 2011, Mario Balotelli lifted his shirt in the Manchester derby to reveal an undershirt that stated “Why Always Me?”
  • On 26 December 2012, Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov revealed an undershirt that stated “Keep Calm and Pass Me the Ball”.
  • After scoring the winning goal against the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup Final in 2010, Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta revealed an undershirt that stated “Dani Jarque: Forever With Us” in memory of his former team-mate who had died of a sudden heart attack at age 26.

These incidents range from amusing comments, to emotional tributes, to declarations of faith. All are covered by Law 4.

What is the rationale for the interventionist approach taken by FIFA? As has been discussed on Sports Shorts previously, sports governing bodies such as FIFA cannot afford to be seen to take any particular side of a contentious issue, particularly in cases where they may have aligned themselves with commercial partners or sponsors whose own interests may differ to those of the participant. The sums at stake are simply too large for sports governing bodies to take the risk.

From a practical perspective, this means the implementation of a rule such as Law 4, which is sufficiently broad as to encompass a wide range of potentially divisive or contentious slogans, beliefs or statements.

This is not an approach that is specific to football. England cricketer Moeen Ali was told by the match referee in the third Test between England and India in the summer of 2014 that he should not be wearing “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” wristbands. Following the Test, the International Cricket Council (the “ICC”) issued a statement saying that:

“The ICC equipment and clothing regulations do not permit the display of messages that relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes during an international match. Moeen Ali was told by the match referee that while he is free to express his views on such causes away from the cricket field, he is not permitted to wear the wristbands on the field of play and warned not to wear the bands again during an international match.”

In wording that is similar to FIFA’s Law 4, Rule G.1 of the ICC’s Clothing and Equipment Rules and Regulations states that:

“Players and team officials shall not be permitted to wear, display or otherwise convey messages through arm bands or other items affixed to clothing or equipment (“Personal Messages”) unless approved in advance by both the player or team official’s Board and the ICC Cricket Operations Department. Approval shall not be granted for messages which relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes. The ICC shall have the final say in determining whether any such message is approved. For the avoidance of doubt, where a message is approved by the player or team official’s Board but subsequently disapproved by the ICC’s Cricket Operations Department, the player or team official shall not be permitted to wear, display or otherwise convey such message in International Matches.”

England had cleared Ali to wear the bands in advance, believing that the messages were humanitarian, rather than political. Yet the ICC took a different view. Whatever Ali’s view on that issue, it is a divisive matter and the ICC simply could not be seen to come down on either side of what is a particularly contentious issue.

This brings us back to the poppies. Whether the wearing of poppies is political, humanitarian or simply a sign of respect, there is no doubt that the issue is contentious. This is highlighted by the number of occasions in the past where poppies, remembrance and Armistice Day have been the source of controversy.

The primary purpose of Law 4 is to ensure that the focus of football remains the game itself. Like all other sports governing bodies, FIFA does not want to take a side on what remains a contentious issue. For this reason, it may well be wary of setting a precedent on which other contentious causes can hang their hat.