Member of the Serbian national squad and Manchester United star Nemanja Matic appeared to be the only one playing in a Saturday match between Bournemouth and Manchester United with no poppy flower on his chest, which in the Premier league traditionally marks players’ tribute to Brits who fell in the First World War as well as British NATO soldiers.
To explain his move, Matic took Sunday to social media, saying that he "recognizes fully" the reasons why people wear poppies as remembrence symbols, and "I have total sympathy for anyone who has lost loved ones due to conflict," he wrote.
He went on to recall his hair-raising childhood memories of the 1999 Yugoslavia:
"For me it is only a reminder of an attack that I felt personally as a young, frightened 12-year old boy living in Vrelo, as my country was devastated by the bombing of Serbia in 1999."
He noted that although he had previously worn the flower symbol on his chest, "on reflection, I now don't feel it is right for me to wear the poppy on my shirt."
According to sources earlier cited by the Serbian media outlet Telegraf, after a poppy flower was pinned on to his shirt, the midfielder asked what it was, and having heard about it honoring fallen British and NATO soldiers, he ripped the flower off his chest and dropped it on the locker room floor, stating emotionally:
“You bombed my country, there is no way that I am going to wear that. If necessary, I am prepared to leave the club and England right away.”
According to the Football Federation rules, it is not compulsory for footballers to wear the remembrance symbol on their chest, and since the move is voluntary, a refusal to wear it is by no means punishable.
Manchester United snatched a 2-1 victory against Bournemouth at the latter’s home stadium Vitality on Saturday.
The UK was part of NATO's bombing campaign against the then Yugoslavia in 1999, when its ethnic Albanian-majority province of Kosovo, part of Serbian territory, fought the Yugoslavian army for independence.
NATO airstrikes spanned several months, from March 24 to June 10, killing vast numbers of people, with the exact death toll still unknown. According to Serbian authorities, about 2,500, including 89 children, were killed and about 12,500 people sustained injuries in the bombings, while the material damage is reported to amount to $30-100 billion.
The military operation was conducted without the approval of the UN Security Council, based on Western countries' allegations that Yugoslavian authorities had masterminded an ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and brought about a humanitarian catastrophe there.
Kosovo’s self-declared independence has been recognized by a number of countries, including Britain and the United States. However, Serbia itself, Russia, several EU states, with Spain among them, and China do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state.