Chewed up by poppy PR machine

Carlos Tevez’s first column for the Sun on Sunday was a scream.

Much of it was devoted to an attack on “sock-sucker” and man on the make, Gary Neville. Tevez also attacked Graeme Souness, which seemed bizarre until you remembered that last year, Souness called Tevez “a bad apple... what the man in the street thinks is wrong with modern football” after his famous falling-out with Roberto Mancini in Munich.

One former professional at the Etihad Stadium wondered if Souness now regretted speaking so harshly about Tevez since it later emerged he had simply refused to warm up again rather than refused to play full stop. As a general rule, it’s unwise to rush to judgement on the basis of TV evidence, because the information you have, though it looks conclusive, is just a sliver of the reality.

Judging by media coverage of the Remembrance Day Poppy Appeal you would have thought City’s home ground would look like Old Trafford for the day, such would be the abundance of little red and black badges. In fact most City fans were not wearing a poppy; neither were most of the journalists.

There were two groups of people who were all wearing one: the Manchester City staff, and anyone who might be appearing on TV, including all the players. So watching on TV you might have come away with the impression that Eastlands had hosted some kind of poppy orgy and yet it wasn’t really like that at all.

The novelist Tim Parks wrote recently in the New York Review that the interesting thing about the English FA’s refusal to take part in the first three World Cups was that “they did not feel that this competition for notional world supremacy was what the sport was for. What mattered was familiar communities confronting each other in the stadium — that would give meaning to the game”.

At that time the FA could not imagine the role football would play in constructing what we now think of the “international community”. Now it’s as though they are making up for lost time. It’s as though being the most popular sport is no longer enough, and the game has to stand for something more. So, English football loves to let itself be used as a vehicle for various social engineering projects, such as the PR campaign for the military that the Poppy Appeal has evolved into.

The poppy is meant to stand for the sorrow and pity of war, yet many people now think it means “support our troops”. To these people, poppy absence signifies a disrespect towards Britain and towards the freedom supposedly won for the world by the British armed forces.

It was widely reported last week that a writer called Stuart Laycock has published a book which shows that Britain has at one stage or another invaded all but 22 of the world’s 200-odd countries. History tells us that the British forces have usually stood for Britain rather than freedom but the people who get excited about poppy disrespect don’t read much history.

The point is that the symbol is more complicated than some people are prepared to admit, yet the ubiquity of the badges on TV creates the impression that everyone is wearing them — an impression that is strengthened when football gives its official stamp of approval with pre-match ceremonies and specially commissioned jerseys.

Now James McClean finds himself under attack from thousands of people who feel that by refusing to wear a poppy-embroidered shirt he has bitten the hand that feeds him. The general sentiment could politely be summed up as “When in Rome, McClean, do as the Romans do, especially when you’re on the Roman payroll” but the tone is savage, and the tone of some of those who have leapt to McClean’s defence is not much better.

The point about requiring everyone to participate in a mass symbolic display is that it’s all very well provided the symbols are completely meaningless to everybody involved.

McClean comes from one of the towns where the British armed forces are hated, and works in one of the towns that produces many recruits for those armed forces. He had to choose between disappointing people in the place where he works, or disappointing people in the place where he’s from.

He chose the former, and as a result his reputation and maybe even his career will suffer, as people who are genuinely outraged by what they mistakenly interpret as an insult suddenly start to see the footballing flaws to which they’d previously turned a blind eye.

He should never have been put in this position.

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