During my later teenage years, I was obsessed with football. I went to all the home games at Crewe Alexandra and followed them away to fourth division games in places like Bradford Park Avenue, Chesterfield and Wrexham.
In more recent years, I have become very disillusioned by much of what is on offer. I take no great interest in seeing whether the team that was built up using money from a Russian oligarch has managed to spend lavish amounts of money more sensibly than their Saudi-financed rivals. It takes most of the fun out of the game when it is pretty clear before the season even starts which teams have bought their way into contention.
With every passing year, I have felt that cynicism mounting as I have watched the game depart further and further from its roots. Until a few months back, when something unexpected started to happen. In Qatar, the corrupt authorities finally pushed many players too far, and they began to speak out against the way they were being used to promote a spectacle that was covering up some very unpleasant realities.
Hang on, footballers have principles?
The highly paid, much pampered England team turned out to have quite a lot of principles and took action to try to highlight the appalling treatment of women and of gay fans inside the country that had paid so much to be centre stage. Even more bravely, the entire Iranian team hung their heads and refused to sing their country’s national anthem at a time when their government was shaming their country by fostering brutal beatings and killings of women who refused to wear the headscarf in the way prescribed by some old clerics.
Instead of supporting those stances, FIFA continually claimed that it was promoting engagement as the best way to encourage change. Engaging with Vladimir Putin four years earlier doesn’t seem to have produced any noticeable improvements. Engaging with their own bank accounts seemed all too likely to have been the real motivation for all too many of those FIFA officials who took the world cup to the wrong place, at the wrong time.
In the face of this, the attempts of some players and managers to bring morality back into the game were encouraging. Now things have gone even further.
And then Gary wrote a Tweet – how dare he?!
Gary Lineker made a sincere and honest attempt to stand by some of the weakest in society by sending out a message to those who had consciously chosen to follow his Twitter feed. He didn’t say anything on air. At no point did he try to associate this with the Holocaust. Instead, he identified parallels with the period running up to it when the right wing in inter-war Germany failed to stand up to the even further right wing. Most historians share the view that this was one of the fatal mistakes that led to everything that followed.
The right immediately attacked him for daring to speak politically. When Alan Sugar compared Jeremy Corbyn to Hitler, he was allowed to carry on without criticism by the BBC. Andrew Neil, the person the BBC chose to employ as a supposedly impartial political interviewer, was chair of the Spectator and then moved on to work for the right-wing GB News channel before resigning due to editorial differences. The BBC board lost its neutrality and got filled up with people who hate its ethos who have directly assisted the Conservative Party for years. All of that was tolerated and indeed fostered.
Yet when Lineker spoke out strongly in support of the powerless, there was a howl of rage and a tremendous effort to intimidate him into silence. To his immense credit, he stood firm and refused to be bullied. He clearly understood that if he accepted limits on what he was allowed to say, then he would be gradually and progressively subjected to complete censorship of his views.
And then came the huge wave of support
The stance he took was impressive enough. What was better was the speed with which the football community came to his aid. Instead of viewing his demise as a career opportunity and rushing to offer themselves as replacement commentators, an impressive number of people spoke out in his support.
So, respect to Ian Wright for quickly and bravely lining up alongside Lineker. Respect to Alan Shearer. Respect to Alex Scott. And the list goes on to include those who were expected to commentate on the games but refused and the managers and players who quickly announced that they would not be available for interview by the BBC until things were put right.
There are, of course, some very nasty people hanging on the coattails of football. The far right has been deliberately infiltrating gangs of fans for decades and there are some very unsavoury characters who have engaged in some horrible behaviour whilst travelling abroad claiming to be supporters of the England team. There have, however, always been a lot more thoroughly decent people who are pleased to see a game start out with a commitment to kick out racism and are quick to rally to the support of any members of their chosen team who come out as gay.
The BBC and the government badly misjudged the situation
Prominent players who have been accepted as loyal to a particular club are regarded by fans as one of their own and woe betide anyone or any government that tries to mess with them. Wright has the respect and the ear of the vast majority of Arsenal fans. Most Newcastle fans listen to Shearer with more respect than Suella Braverman. Leicester, with its diverse communities, has stood solidly behind Lineker.
Therein lies the problem for this government. They have picked a fight with some very popular people who influence a lot of voters. It is one thing launching an attack on small boat migrants in the hope of regaining popularity. They thought it similarly safe to influence the BBC to isolate and silence one highly paid football commentator. They never calculated on the extent of the backlash.
It turns out that some highly paid former professional footballers are a lot more popular than the government, a lot braver and seemingly a lot more intelligent. It is a genuine pleasure to be proud of my sport once again.
What we all need now is a government and an independent public broadcaster that we can also be proud of!