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Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011

PREMIER REPORT

Poppy row overshadows Spain visit


LONDON — We should have been talking about Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and the other superstars of European and world champion Spain. One of the truly great teams of any era is playing England at Wembley on Saturday but the visit of the best international side on the planet has been almost an irrelevance.

Christopher Davies

The buildup to the prestige friendly has been dominated not by football but by the row between the Football Association and FIFA over the right of the England players to wear a poppy on their shirts ahead of Remembrance Sunday.

FIFA bans any insignia of a political, religious or commercial connotation, which is understandable. A poppy does not fall into any of those categories however. It is worn to pay respect to those who gave their lives at war. A national anthem is more political than a poppy.

World football's governing body eventually reached a compromise with the F.A. to allow the England players (and those of the other British teams) to display printed poppies on their black armbands at Wembley. The weeklong media frenzy showed the uglier side of the English press as it indulged in one of its favorite past-times: FIFA bashing. The carve-up over the 2022 World Cup, which will be staged in Qatar, has not been forgotten.

England has played previous internationals around Remembrance Sunday without any poppy campaigns, but this time one newspaper jumped on the bandwagon (and given the subsequent hysteria it can claim its initiative was justified) and the story became front- and back-page leads.

The lunatics came out of their asylums (many of whom, you can bet, have not worn poppies over the past two weeks) to say England should just defy FIFA and wear poppy-shirts anyway. Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William even became involved, writing to FIFA while two lovely chaps from the English Defence League, a far-right organization, took time out from their MENSA class to climb on the roof of FIFA house, wearing poppies to protest. Very helpful to the cause, that.

FIFA was reluctant to set a precedent by allowing a kit to be altered because it could be abused by others in the future. They were not trying to be disrespectful to anyone, they just wanted all football kits to be kept sacrosanct but the press was soon in overdrive. The pragmatic compromise, where both parties can claim they got what they wanted, was brokered by Chris Heaton-Harris, a backbench Conservative MP and a qualified referee who telephoned FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke on Wednesday with the idea of the poppy emblem on the armbands. Crisis over.

Meanwhile, the row over whether John Terry should lead England against Spain and Sweden on Tuesday has now become an official saga, still ongoing three weeks after the Chelsea captain was alleged to have made a racist remark at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand. Police investigations continue.

Whichever decision Fabio Capello made about Terry would be wrong. The Italian has chosen the "innocent until proven guilty" theory and has selected his captain on football criteria. It is not the most popular choice and it is uncertain whether Terry will lead the team against Spain — Capello had originally planned to use him only against Sweden but Phil Jagielka's foot injury may force the manager's hand. A center-back partnership of Joleon Lescott and Gary Cahill does not inspire confidence.

Perhaps the biggest decision about the game Capello made was to miss his son's wedding in Italy. The match, originally scheduled for Friday, was put back 24 hours at the request of Spain and Capello put the match before his son's marriage.

As much as anything it will be a welcome relief to talk about football again.

* * *

I SOMETIMES wonder whether Carlos Tevez goes to bed to dream up new ways of getting into trouble with Manchester City.

Having accepted City's misconduct charge for failing to warm up before the Champions League tie away to Bayern Munich, Tevez flew to Buenos Aires this week to meet up with his family.

It being Tevez, the trip was a farce and the usual misunderstanding. He was seemingly unaware that Argentina is playing two 2014 World Cup qualifiers and so the press would be camped at the airport as Lionel Messi and company flew in. If Tevez hoped for a low-key arrival, he could not have been more wrong.

City has consulted its lawyers — again — as Tevez failed to turn up for training, in contravention of orders, they say. Tevez said he was given "an ambiguous answer" by manager Roberto Mancini's assistant Fausto Salsano, a claim which City rejected. Even Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, who can defend the indefensible with his members, said: "The lad is doffing himself a hole and it is going deeper."

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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