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Anger grows over Fifa's probe into Northern Ireland poppy tributes - 'unfair, shameful and outrageous'

By Claire McNeilly

Published 24/11/2016

The teams observe a minute's silence in front of the poppy mosaic at Windsor Park
The teams observe a minute's silence in front of the poppy mosaic at Windsor Park
Army veteran Bryan Phillips and his partner Natasha

Fifa was last night facing growing outrage after it charged the Irish Football Association for honouring our war heroes on Armistice Day.

Football's world governing body announced yesterday it had opened disciplinary proceedings over acts of remembrance at the recent World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan.

The IFA vowed to robustly contest the charges.

It is understood Fifa has taken issue with the holding of a minute's silence held prior to kick-off at the national stadium.

The charges are also believed to relate to poppy banners in the crowd, a poppy mosaic made out of cards, and the laying of wreaths on the pitch.

Last night Fifa was facing mounting calls to drop its "outrageous investigation".

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson accused the organisation of "acting irresponsibly" by turning the poppy into a political football.

He said Fifa had acted insensitively and defended IFA officials, adding that they had "acted responsibly and with considerable dignity".

"It is appalling that the IFA are now being subjected to a disciplinary investigation," he said.

"I believe they have followed the advice that they have been given by Fifa and they have acted with full transparency and out of the best intentions.

"The poppy is a symbol of remembrance and it saddens me greatly that Fifa have turned this into some kind of political football within sport when really that is not what this should be about.

"I really hope that Fifa will see sense and discontinue this disciplinary investigation."

The Football Association of Wales is also facing charges over remembrance acts before its World Cup qualifier against Serbia in Cardiff on the same weekend.

Fifa bans "political, religious or commercial messages" being used on national teams' shirts.

Newtownabbey man Bryan Phillips (27), an Army veteran who lost his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan, said Fifa should be "ashamed" of the decision.

"My view is that it was a fitting tribute to our fallen, but I also think they should have challenged Fifa at the time and taken a stronger stance towards an organisation that is known to be corrupt and has been proven to be corrupt, and has not moved with modern times. Fifa should be ashamed and need properly educated on why the poppy is a symbol of remembrance and not a political symbol."

The controversy caused a furore in the build-up to and over Armistice weekend. England and Scotland defied Fifa in their World Cup qualifier at Wembley by wearing the symbol on black armbands, and are also facing disciplinary action.

Last night outrage was mounting among fans. Gary McAllister from the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs said Fifa's actions were "disgraceful".

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott said it was "shameful", claiming the much-criticised body - which has been plagued by allegations of corruption - was out of touch with reality.

"Fifa should remember that if it wasn't for the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives - particularly in World War Two - many of the countries that are members of Fifa wouldn't even exist," he said.

"Given Fifa's recent track record of scandal, one wonders just how they feel they can sit in judgment of anyone, especially on an issue such as this."

IFA officials are believed to be furious over what they see is a "treacherous U-turn" by Fifa over its stance on poppies during the game, which Northern Ireland won 4-0.

The Belfast Telegraph understands the IFA had been given reassurances prior to the match that there would be no problem with Armistice Day commemorations. A source close to the IFA told this newspaper that officials were "beside themselves with rage" at facing "completely unexpected" disciplinary action.

"They feel this is nothing short of treachery from the people running football," said the source.

"As far as the IFA are concerned, they asked Fifa for guidance and then they followed that guidance to the letter.

"But now, after attempting to work together to come to an agreement around the poppy issue, they find themselves facing similar action to England and Scotland, who blatantly defied Fifa regulations.

"This is a bolt out of the blue. It is totally unfair and they will be fighting any charges being levelled against them all the way."

Some have pointed out the Republic of Ireland paid tribute to the Easter Rising in a friendly match against Switzerland earlier this year - yet it went largely ignored by Fifa, who only opened disciplinary proceedings after questions were raised by the English media recently.

Fifa refused to say what charges it was bringing against the IFA.

It added: "The Disciplinary Committee decided to open proceedings against the Irish Football Association and the Football Association of Wales in relation to several incidents involving the display of poppy symbols reported after the matches Northern Ireland-Azerbaijan and Wales-Serbia respectively. Please understand we cannot comment further at this stage."

A statement from the IFA said: "The Irish Football Association will robustly defend the disciplinary charges that have been levelled against it by Fifa regarding acts of remembrance at the World Cup qualifying match between Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan on November 11."

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