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FIFA poppy ruling is payback from discredited organisation and Northern Ireland is collateral damage

By Jim Gracey

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

For the many thousands who regard the act of remembrance as quiet and personal, the annual squabble over how we, as individuals, and as nations, remember the fallen of countless conflicts brings its own kind of sadness.

That little red lapel symbol, originally conceived as a means to raise funds to aid injured and down on their luck servicemen and women, has itself, regrettably, become a weapon in a different kind of war.

The combatants now are mostly the keyboard warriors and ceasefire soldiers of cyberspace, whose social media rantings are easily dismissed as the prattle of the powerless that it is.

Less easy to ignore are the hardy annual manufactured media storms, generally whipped up by attention-craving seekers of offence with each side as bad as the other... those who, without a trace of irony as to its origins, flout the poppy in a two-fingered salute to 'the other side' who disapprove of all it stands for to the point of incandescence. You know our wee country: if they're for it, we're against it.

Both are wrong, and the rest of us tend to get quietly on with remembering or not, as our conscience tells us.

As a poppy wearer and payer of respects at Lurgan Cenotaph, it is a symbol and tradition I hold dear... two minutes of silence amid the cacophony of a whole year to remember friends and neighbours who didn't make it through troubled times in our beleaguered little town that suffered more than most from the kind of divisions the usual suspects seek to exploit.

Generally, we get past it as a seven-day wonder until the next 'us and themmuns' fest erupts among the feeble of mind who, in truth, are given far too much airtime. It is all so tedious for those of us who believe in choice and do not give a thought to imposing ours upon others. A little respect goes a long way.

But just when we thought it had gone away in time for the season of peace and goodwill, along come Fifa to reopen the can of worms.

Many rank-and-file, apolitical Northern Ireland football supporters, and indeed many more in the population at large, will be dismayed, bewildered, even angry at the decision by the new football gnomes of Zurich to open disciplinary proceedings against Northern Ireland and Wales in relation to the display of poppy symbols during their matches on Remembrance Day itself, November 11.

Call it what you will - crass, insensitive, draconian and grossly offensive. It is all of those, but also entirely unsurprising from a rotten, corrupt and malignant body attempting to shed its old skin and failing miserably in this Stalin-esque attempt to impose its will upon its member nations.

Make no mistake, there is an agenda afoot here, a settling of old scores, with the poor poppy the political football once again.

Fifa hasn't got round yet to England and Scotland who, unlike the Irish and Welsh FAs, were less concerned about upsetting the power brokers and holders of the world football purse-strings, lest a top job or handout be required up ahead (some might think).

Many here felt the IFA didn't go far enough when it consciously opted not to rock boats with Fifa. While England and Scotland players wore poppy-inscribed black armbands, the IFA chose to mark the occasion with a minute's silence, a wreath-laying and a poppy mosaic in the crowd ahead of the Azerbaijan game. The players wore plain black armbands.

To those who believe the act and symbols of remembrance are tarnished by even a hint of controversy or contention, it seemed an acceptable, dignified compromise. Much good that acquiescence did the IFA in the eyes of Fifa.

Northern Ireland and Wales will likely, and shamefully, be fined, heavily, for their temerity. And that will then pave the way for England and Scotland, as greater transgressors in Fifa's book, to be docked World Cup points.

Less about the poppy and more about payback from remnants of the old Sepp Blatter regime for the English FA in particular, for its part in his downfall and the exposure of Fifa corruption. The Scots, Welsh and ourselves will be collateral damage.

It is tempting to say the real damage is to Fifa's reputation, but it doesn't have one to lose. Does it realise there would be no Fifa but for the millions who made the supreme sacrifice in two Word Wars?

The IFA should now set aside its fear of upsetting those new Fifa grandees who wouldn't know a principle from a penalty shout by robustly fighting its corner and that of the vast majority of its football constituency. Not that it will do much good.

Fifa being the discredited, oligarch of an organisation it is, Northern Ireland football's best hope of redress lies on the high moral ground, wearing - instead of a poppy - Fifa's displeasure as the ultimate badge of honour.

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