FIFA Poppy Ban

By Jonathan Copping, Sports Lawyer, Bolt Burdon Law Firm, London, UK

England play Scotland at Wembley Stadium on Friday, 11 November, in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying match. The game will be the first time the two nations have met in a competitive match for 17 years (since the play offs for the European Championships in 2000).

Whilst the build-up should be focused on matters on the pitch, the decision of both nations to wear poppies on their black armbands is dominating the build-up; 11 November being Armistice Day, when tradition dictates that those who have lost their lives in war are remembered.

The English and Scottish FA made a joint approach to FIFA to request that their players be allowed to wear poppies during the match on 11 November. FIFA responded by dismissing the request and released the following statement:

FIFA fully respects the significance of commemorating Remembrance Day on 11 November each year.

The Laws of the Game are overseen by the International Football Association Board (composed of the four British FAs and FIFA) and applicable to all 211 member associations. The relevant Law 4, para. 4, clearly states that the players’ equipment should not carry any political, religious or commercial messages.

The Laws are applied uniformly in the event of similar requests by any member association to commemorate similar historical events”.

Law 4, paragraph 4 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game 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”.

Both the English and Scottish FA have responded to FIFA stating that they will defy FIFA’s decision and their players will wear armbands featuring poppies. In accordance with the above Law, it is not clear what sanction FIFA will hand down for the alleged infringement.

Both FAs have requested an indication from FIFA regarding the sanction that they would impose – possibly a points’ deduction. Whilst Law 4, paragraph 4 indicates that FIFA has the ability to use the whole range of its sanctions, which would apply subsequent to the match, in accordance with Law 4, paragraph 5, if a player is infringing Law 4 paragraph 4 regarding the equipment he is wearing, the referee can instruct the player to leave the field and correct the equipment. It is hard to imagine the referee being in a position to order all 22 players to leave the field and return with the correct equipment, which would no doubt create comical scenes!

With 7 days still to go before the match, it will be interesting to see how this dispute is resolved; and even more interesting to see what sanction FIFA imposes if the English and Scottish FA actually defy the FIFA ban, described as “outrageous” by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the players wear poppies on their armbands, which, incidentally, FIFA previously sanctioned when the issue arose in 2011!