Does the BBC’s Gary Lineker row show that the government has a problem with football?
The weather forecast finished and then suddenly there it was: the BBC’s hurried replacement for Match of the Day following its spectacular bungling of the Gary Lineker row.
Shorn of its theme tune, opening title, studio, presenter, pundits, commentators and about an hour of running time, this was bleak and surreal; a sort of post-apocalyptic football highlights show.
We did at least get to see Mohamed Salah’s penalty miss at Bournemouth, a horrible miscalculation and yet only a fraction as ill-judged as BBC executives’ response to Lineker’s Twitter activity.
While the Beeb didn’t so much score an own goal as forfeit the entire match, the corporation didn’t act in a vacuum but under pressure from the current Conservative government.
More than 36 Tory MPs wrote to BBC director general Tim Davie last week, demanding action over Lineker’s comparison of UK immigration policy to that of 1930s Germany, and it seems fair to wonder what similar lobbying may have been undertaken in private.
The Corporation, under threat of losing the licence fee, has become increasingly entangled in matters of what the government does and does not want.
This is just the latest episode of Tories taking on football and some of its most prominent stars, usually with unfortunate results.
Ministers resisted Marcus Rashford’s school meals campaigning until it became clear they had lost the argument.
They also derided England players for taking the knee in the build-up to Euro 2020, only to rally behind them once it looked like Gareth Southgate’s team might actually win the tournament.
It is hard not to draw the conclusion that some members of this government look down their nose at the game.
During the pandemic, rugby union and horse racing got financial support from the state purse but professional football clubs were given nothing.
“The government seems to have a problem with football, generally,” Dale Vince, the green energy entrepreneur and owner of Forest Green Rovers told City A.M. in 2021.
Boris Johnson did at least get it right over the European Super League, although he never quite shook off rumours that he had initially been in favour of the attempted breakaway.
More recently, the government has found that football is one of the few areas in which it is pro-regulation, the bill for which will be presented to clubs.
Why does this administration seem so determined to put football and its people in their place? Is it a case of snobbery, of not wanting to be told what to do by the working man’s game?
Whatever the explanation, it’s a strange stance to take towards what is one of the country’s most successful industries and a huge source of soft power.
While PM Rishi Sunak struck a conciliatory note, some Tory backbenchers couldn’t wait to declare the BBC’s Lineker-less replacement for Match of the Day much better than the original.
But at the same time, Beeb boss Davie was paving the way for the mother of all climbdowns with news interviews praising the England striker-turned-presenter.
Davie is learning what this government really ought to know by now: that taking on football often ends up with an embarrassing retreat.