x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

'Victory' for flower power

Fifa's U-turn has a hollow feel for a lacklustre England who are desperate for any sort of success, on or off the pitch

Frank Lampard, who will captain England today, displays his poppy during training at Wembley Stadium yesterday.
Frank Lampard, who will captain England today, displays his poppy during training at Wembley Stadium yesterday.

After a considerable dry patch, English football won another badge of honour to adorn its shirt this week: the poppy.

True, the poppy is not another gold star to sit above the Three Lions crest, signifying a World Cup triumph. But let's be realistic: that is not going to happen any time soon.

Even the manager, Fabio Capello, appears to have thrown in the towel. He said this week that England do not have enough quality players or skill to match truly world-class teams such as Spain, their opponents today at Wembley.

Nor is the poppy a symbol of victory in a European Championships. England did not even qualify for the 2008 tournament, and last had a sniff of winning the thing in 1996.

And, no, the poppy does not herald the honour of hosting a major tournament. England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup ended in humiliation, despite the best efforts of Prince William and David Cameron, the prime minister.

The poppy, as well as being a symbol of remembrance, now signifies the only possible victory available to a footballing nation whose arrogance and sense of entitlement far outweighs its ability: a hazy moral one.

If the English cannot win football matches - and, when it matters, they cannot - it seems we will find other ways to demonstrate our natural superiority over Johnny Foreigner.

This "victory" began when the English FA asked Fifa's permission to display Remembrance Day poppies on players' shirts during today's match. Poppies are worn every year around November 11, the official end of the First World War, to commemorate those who died in all wars.

Fifa refused, citing its blanket ban on all symbols with political, nationalistic or religious connotations. However, perhaps understanding the genuine humanitarian intent behind the poppy, they did approve players wearing them before and after the match, as well as holding a minute's silence and a poppy wreath-laying ceremony.

A reasonable compromise? To most of the world, it probably was. To proud Englishmen desperate for a victory, any victory, it was not enough.

With a foot on the moral highground, this was a golden chance to get one over on Sepp Blatter - a man who not only has consistently failed to prostrate himself before England, but who also has the temerity to come from neutral Switzerland.

Sensing a popular cause, and perhaps a chance to make good their humiliation in Zurich, both Prince William and Cameron rounded on Fifa.

So too did the media, which deftly channelled 45 years of football-related hurt into a tidal wave of indignation, which reached fever pitch when two members of the English Defence League scaled the Fifa headquarters roof with a banner reading: "How dare Fifa disrespect our war dead and wounded."

Fifa's "climb-down" was to allow England players to wear black armbands featuring poppies, an outcome reported in The Times newspaper as "England 1 Fifa 0".

Yes, a great result. Put it down with 1966, if you like.

But answer me this. When the cameras focus on those armband poppies during today's silence, will your first thought be the costly victory of freedom over tyranny, or the somewhat cheaper victory of hysterical indignation over an embarrassed football administrator?

I suspect it will be the latter. Some victory that is.

Ashley should tread carefully in name game

Two of the world’s most famous stadiums underwent surprise name-changes this week. It is fair to say one was better received than the other.

The North Stand at Manchester United’s Old Trafford is now the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. Cue outpouring of warm applause towards the great Scot.

All of St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United, is now the Sports Direct Arena. Cue outpouring of simmering bile towards owner Mike Ashley, who is temporarily promoting his own retail empire in order to attract a permanent sponsor.

As stadium name-changes go, the loss of St James’ Park takes the biggest bite into English football history so far.

Ashley knows the fans will be upset but hopes they will simply vent for a while then settle down, particularly if the team’s great start to the season continues.

Personally, I believe he is underestimating the ability of football fans, particularly Newcastle football fans, to bear a grudge.

Just as success-starved England fans seek comfort in the moral victories of the mob (see main article) so, too, may the infamous Toon Army.

With the rise of social networking, it has never been easier to launch a hate campaign against a company.

Even a relatively small group can cause considerable public-relations damage, while boycotts can last for years.

It will be fascinating to see which firm is willing to test its mettle against the Geordie faithful – and pay handsomely for the privilege. The board, however, seem confident.

“We could have a deal by Christmas,” said Derek Llambias, Newcastle’s managing director.

All over by Christmas, eh? Now where have I heard that before?