Footballers’ political interventions are often a litmus test for public sentiment
When footballers enter public debates, they often voice the concerns of the masses. This government shouldn’t just dismiss Gary Lineker’s comments; perhaps, it should stop and listen, writes Eliot Wilson
In many ways I blame Nick Hornby. That may not be fair, but the timing seems about right: in 1992 he published Fever Pitch, a memoir of his relationship with Arsenal; Tony Blair, wrapping himself tightly in a demotic shawl, became leader of the Labour Party in 1994. Suddenly football was no longer the grim, hooligan-infested, piss-stained occupation of freezing terraces and casual violence, but a classless passion to unite white and blue-collar, and, importantly, an essential component of the language of politics.
It would be very difficult to reach the top of politics now without at least being able to pretend one had a love for the beautiful game. David Cameron, always willing to have a go but sometimes failing in the execution, scored an own goal in 2015 when he appeared to confuse the team he’d supported since childhood, Aston Villa, with another squad which plays in claret and blue, West Ham. Even the most unlikely statesman must have a favourite: Theresa May, whom it is hard to picture waving a scarf and screaming obscenities, was said to support Wimbledon after her time as a councillor in Merton.
Yet so often the intersection of football and politics turns sour. Gary Lineker’s decision last week to voice his concerns about the government’s new Illegal Migration Bill has divided opinion: he said that the language the home secretary was using was like “that used by Germany in the 30s”. (He may underestimate the ripeness of Nazi phraseology here.) Many cheered him on, while some felt that a former footballer paid £1.35m a year from the public purse should perhaps think twice before opining on matters of public policy.
This collision of two worlds has happened before. In 2020, Manchester United star Marcus Rashford began to campaign for greater provision of free school meals to help those families struggling through the pandemic. Inexplicably, Boris Johnson and his ministers dug their heels in and rejected the intervention of a footballer in politics. But they ended up capitulating, as anyone with half a brain could have seen was inevitable. At the time, Rashford remarked mildly “I don’t have the education of a politician… but I have a social education”. It was a devastating line.
One of the great strengths of politicians is supposed to be their ability to co-opt potential opponents, and our leaders know that cosying up to footballers can be a useful publicity stunt: remember Tony Blair and Kevin Keegan heading a ball back and forth in 1995? And yet when the two worlds meaningfully collide over policy points, it turns toxic.
One explanation is that non-political celebrities are able to say easily generous and high-minded things without having any responsibility for implementation. A centre-forward can say “We should give our kids free x”, but he doesn’t then have to spend hours in meetings with Treasury ministers trying to gain approval for the spending. So politicians sometimes feel frustrated. It is unfair, they think, that a young, athletic, hyper-remunerated sports star should be able to throw out some glib platitudes and receive lavish praise, when it is ministers who have to deliver and are subjected to much more exacting standards.
There is something else, too. For all that our leaders embrace the relatable identity of a football team and the language of fandom, do we regard football stars as somehow a bit déclassé for the public arena, too uneducated, too simplistic, too raw? What do they know about public life? After all, some of the Chelsea back four didn’t even read PPE.
I am not a football fan, by any means. And I do not think that the latest sensation to start for Spurs should necessarily double up as head of the Downing Street Policy Unit. But politicians should calmly and rationally accept that footballers are popular figures, and, in a strange, intangible way, they embody the wisdom of crowds. Gary Lineker may not have nailed every detail of immigration policy, but he is, in some ways, the acme of the man on the Clapham omnibus. If he is thinking something, it is a reasonable bet that many members of the public are too. The only difference is his social media reach.
Understand, assess, synthesise, absorb. Those are the functions which in politicians should be highly developed. If a football player (even if it is association rather than rugger) articulates a semi-political point of view, the instinct should not be to reject, condemn and belittle. Think. Think about where it is coming from, what has inspired it, and how the public is likely to react. It may show you where your true interests lie.