Once the whistle blows, the rivalries are intense; passions are ignited and tempers flare. My dad says he remembers watching games at Highbury as a young lad where 60,000 men stood shoulder to shoulder and there was no animosity – they’d seen enough of fighting. The war claimed the lives of nine Arsenal first team players, the most of any top flight club. Children were passed carefully over the heads of the crowd down to the front where they could get a better view of the match. No doubt they were collected by their parents later.
This is one of the reasons it disgusts me when media advertising refers to sport as war and tries to drum up jingoistic comparisons with battle. It’s a whole different ball-game. The day is not really marked in New Zealand – they commemorate Anzac Day instead. However, the poppies blooming on the breasts of the BBC newsreaders and the English football managers, and many of the crowd are the reminders on this distant shore, brought to us by the media, so they perhaps they are on the same side after all.
When I was about 12 and a member of the Red Cross, I participated in a march down the high street to commemorate the war heroes. As we stood in frozen silence at the cenotaph, I fainted (I have since learned to wiggle my toes which keeps the circulation flowing while feigned immobility). I felt shamed – they gave their lives for me and I couldn’t even stand still for a minute!
There was a Penguin book club at the time where you could send off 50p for the latest titles. I took my 50p to school and dropped it in the collection box. When mum asked me where my book was and I told her I had bought a poppy instead she was bemused – ‘But you could have got both for that money!’ I burst into tears and sobbed, ‘But that was all I had to sacrifice.’ There was nothing mum could say to that, but I can still feel the fierce love in the hug she gave me.