Football on the front line in the Covid culture war

The sport was always going to be a battleground in the philosophical conflict that is dividing the country, writes Tony Evans

Thursday 23 December 2021 09:34 GMT
<p>Jurgen Klopp has been an outspoken advocate of vaccinations </p>

Jurgen Klopp has been an outspoken advocate of vaccinations

The tweet is as stupid as it is jarring. “I am a broken man,” it said. “Juergen (sic) Klopp has killed my love… LFC you’re dead to me.”

The Twitter account in question has as its profile picture an illustration of a syringe as the Pied Piper leading a crowd of surgically-masked children. To where is anyone’s guess: according to doctors and scientists, the destination of vaccinated youngsters is safety from the most extreme effects of Covid-19. In the mad mind of the author of the tweet, the boys and girls are heading for their doom.

Jurgen Klopp has been, if we are to believe a further tweet, “obviously told by his owners to endorse the vaccine.” Precisely why is not explained. Are Fenway Sports Group part of the shadowy cabal that is using the pandemic to curtail the freedoms of individuals? Or is there a more straightforward answer?

Klopp lost his mother to the virus earlier this year. He is an intelligent man who listens to medics and virologists. In the post-truth world, when the most unprincipled politicians spout nonsense like, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.” The Liverpool manager bases his opinion on the views of professionals who know what they are talking about. That means the 54-year-old is caught in the crossfire of the culture wars.

Football was always going to be a battleground in the philosophical conflict that is tearing the country apart. The game is one of the most obvious expressions of British culture, particularly the working-class version. Clubs developed at the tail end of the 19th century as communal activities, under an ethos of shared purpose. Those principles have eroded and the fabric that holds the sport together is being pulled apart at an ever-increasing pace. It will not go down without a fight.

Some of the finest elements of today’s society are reflected and projected by football, its clubs and its players. Marcus Rashford’s campaign to alleviate child hunger is heroic. Before every game, the participants take the knee to express their opposition to discrimination. Klopp’s vocal stance on the importance of vaccinations is only tangentially about his team; his main concern is public health.

Yet all of these initiatives have been the subject of criticism. Rashford’s opponents contorted themselves to find reasons to undermine the Manchester United striker, some even asking why he was not confronting the problems of absent fatherhood.

Strange logic – and coded racism – is afoot everywhere. The kneeling gesture was claimed to be Marxist, something the knuckleheads latched onto when they booed the players. And more than one moron has taken to the internet to allege that Klopp is a dupe, working to destroy lives rather than saving them.

The truth is clear and obvious. Can anyone be in favour of children going hungry? Who could possibly be against anti-racist gestures? And why would any person be against protecting the nation’s health?

The answer is simple. The sort of ideas being pushed in modern Britain are right-wing and libertarian. They reflect the views of Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister whose government politicised the game like never before – and not to the sport’s advantage. Thatcher famously said, “Society? There is no such thing!” Football’s growth and continuing popularity undermines that notion. The so-called “Iron Lady” was a radical who sought to recast civic life in this country by advocating a life where individuals only had responsibility for themselves and to their immediate circle. The existence of football necessitates a much wider kinship and community spirit. This is why Thatcher lumped supporters into her “enemy within” category during the 1980s.

Few understand this as well as Klopp. His conduct during the initial phase of the pandemic was inspirational. It remains so. For him, the sport is an enduring love, a profession and a source of great joy. But it will never be more important than people.

He would rather lose every game than stand by and watch the morgues fill with unnecessary deaths. He is at the very top of his trade. He would not expect an amateur to tell him how to set up his team. Likewise, he would not presume to tell the finest scientists in the world that they are wrong. When they speak, he listens.

Matt Le Tissier does not. The 53-year-old has become a leading Covid sceptic. The former Southampton striker is using his status as a footballing icon to influence people’s medical decisions. The man has no self-awareness.

Terry Venables was England manager for the majority of Le Tissier’s international career and was often asked why the forward did not win scores of caps. Venables would explain how Le Tissier was too static; his lack of movement made life easy for top-class defenders. Venables is the most tactically astute England boss in the history of the national team and his greatest attribute was improving players by giving them tips to enhance their game. He always made it clear.

Le Tissier’s acolytes are even more embarrassing. Rickie Lambert, another Southampton forward of more recent vintage, posted a photograph of Le Tissier on Instagram, saying that his hero is “one of the only ones of his stature to speak out”. In the picture, Le Tissier is wearing a suit and tie and the self-satisfied smirk of a Tory MP who doesn’t realise there’s a scandal round the corner. Lambert, who briefly played for Liverpool and was a fan of the club growing up, demands that “you… start to do your own f****** research” into Covid and vaccines. In a more recent post, Lambert accuses those who administer inoculations to children of committing crimes. “… You are a CRIMINAL! The Nuremberg code has been broken!”

The Nuremberg code might as well be a Dan Brown novel for all Lambert apparently understands the ethical principles that limit medical experimentation on humans. The views of this pair are deplorable. If you take Lambert’s advice, the most perfunctory research shows that neither he nor Le Tissier have any clinical credentials and the closest they have come to the medical world is when they were having football injuries treated.

The mass of misinformation, the sheer weight of guff pedalled by those who should know better has created the situation where this week it was revealed that 16 per cent of Premier League players have not had a jab. It is hard to be too critical. Vaccinations have been linked – without any basis – to incidents like Christian Eriksen’s collapse at Euro 2020.

A Fifa study into sudden deaths among players completed before the pandemic clearly shows there has been no upsurge in fatalities. In fact, fewer players have died because the game was put on hiatus last year. Yet again, liars, dissemblers and dupes are using the sport to spread misinformation on social media.

Leeds United are at the forefront of the counteroffensive and made it known that everyone at Elland Road is vaccinated. Like Klopp, Leeds have been touched by the pandemic’s dark finger: Kalvin Phillips’ grandmother was a victim of the virus, as was Norman Hunter, one of the club’s legends.

Rob Price, the head of medicine and performance, lost both his parents. He has made sure everyone at Leeds is protected as much as possible. Price has done the research: years of education and a deep knowledge of his subject. People like him are appalled every time the likes of Le Tissier and Lambert make a pronouncement.

Conte on low morale and Covid vaccines

Football is an easy vehicle for all sorts of dubious behaviour. Its culture war is being fought on a number of fronts. Many clubs are in the hands of profit-driven businessmen. Dubious states have realised the value of sportswashing. Covid will pass but the existential threats to the game remain. At Anfield, so often the front line where the game and politics intersect, a banner on the Kop says “Never trust a Tory”. At the opposite end, “Feed the Scousers”, rings out at this time of year, as if Scrooge or Rishi Sunak composed a carol for the antichrist’s birth. On Wednesday night it was Leicester City fans singing it. Meanwhile, a study published in January showed that 3.67 per cent of Leicester’s population suffered from hunger and more than 10 per cent struggled to get enough food. Those figures are likely to be considerably higher almost a year on.

Songs like this are too easily written off as “banter”. Empty stomachs are not funny. Malnourishment is being normalised once again in this country. That might suit those who promote the “no society” theory but increasingly poverty is coming too close to home for football fans. Many of those in the Anfield Road end last night will know someone who is struggling to make ends meet. Ademola Lookman, one of Leicester’s players who is on loan from Leipzig, has spoken movingly of coming from a home where there was frequently nothing to eat in the fridge.

The huge increase in food banks around stadiums at once proves that football’s communal spirit exists. It is appalling that their donations are necessary but the majority of supporters do care about the people around them.

So does Klopp. If his words help keep people alive it will be a greater legacy than any trophies. And if he kills the love of an anti-vaccination crank for Liverpool it is a small bonus. Football can live without people like that. Le Tissier and Lambert, too.

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