In a commitment to repeating the same missteps in a failing effort to handle the Covid crisis, it is no surprise the UK government has again played its ‘hey, quick – look over there at the footballers’ card.
In April, when only 0.4 per cent of key health workers had been tested and the political powers that be were under increasing scrutiny, they dropped the shoulder and turned attention towards the salaries of players and them needing to “make a sacrifice” for a nation by taking financial cuts.
Another lengthy lockdown welcomes another feint to deceive and distract.
Following the horrendous handling of Christmas, the pace of the vaccine programme being slower – shock horror – than promised and hospitals in Britain running out of oxygen to just scratch at the shambles, how dare t̶h̶e̶ ̶g̶o̶v̶e̶r̶n̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶g̶e̶t̶ ̶i̶t̶s̶ ̶a̶c̶t̶ ̶t̶o̶g̶e̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ footballers forget to social distance during goal celebrations?
Yes, Nigel Huddleston, the Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage, you are correct: “Everyone in the country has had to change the way they interact with people and ways of working. Footballers are no exception.”
Unlike, say, Dominic Cummings, they haven’t been. Their ways of interacting and working with each other have been significantly altered.
Players are doing their jobs in front of empty stands, with severely reduced recovery times amid the highest spike in serious injuries to keep the national game afloat, hundreds of thousands employed and us entertained.
They are tasked with uplifting a nation, but please do pile in if they get caught up in the moment and hug each other after scoring after getting tested twice a week and being in close contact all game, including when grappling at set-pieces.
Yes, we are in a lockdown. Yes, we have had to make sacrifices. But it is actually an affront to the public’s intelligence to expect us not to be able to divorce their highly sanitised, secure environment and circumstances from our own.
Kevin De Bruyne hugging Phil Foden is not a slap in the face because I haven’t been able to see my family in over a year, let alone have the opportunity to embrace them. Neither is it an invitation for me to me to breach my bubble and wrap my arms around a friend.
But such mental planting from a government that shuns taking the responsibility and instead pins it on individuals – £200 fines for getting a coffee as it constitutes a picnic, or for sitting on a bench to get fresh air as it’s not exercise – makes complete sense.
Players hugging is most certainly not “an insult to the NHS” as we keep being told. No, no. That would be the fact that since the Conservatives gained power in 2010, the average salary for a nurse has dropped by 8% based on the consumer prices index (CPI) – or by £2,646, according to the Royal College of Nurses (RCN).
Or that migrant doctors and other healthcare workers on the frontline who have contracted Covid while caring for NHS patients with the virus are in a devastating limbo after a parliamentary bill that would have given them the right to remain in the UK has been postponed.
The disastrous spike in cases and deaths we are seeing during the latest wave of the pandemic is not due to me, or you or Sheffield United revelling in a winner.
It is the consequence of dithering and delaying from the government.
While a tiny percentage of players have been idiots and broken Covid rules, magnified by the reality that those abiding by them do not make for headlines or hits, the game has proven it can carry on and adapt even in the most uncomfortable of scenarios.
One of the moments of the campaign has been Aston Villa teenager Louie Barry scoring against a strong Liverpool side in the FA Cup after an outbreak at the club saw the hosts field an XI containing seven members of the under-23 squad and four from the under-18s.
The scenes that followed, him being near-tears and the huddle with his fellow youngsters topped up by his wholesome post-match interview, were the dose of goodness we need more and not less of right now.
Football without fans is already stripped of so much of its soul, with matchdays at the stadium just feeling like one big contractual obligation.
It is the moments of emotion we get, most especially when the ball hits the back of the net, that keep it feeling a semblance of normal, that keep us invested.
But the optics. Optics, optics, optics. "Some of the scenes we have seen have been brainless and give out an awful message,” Julian Knight, chair of the DCMS select committee, said.
If that’s his take on Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly’s handshake jive, it would be great to get his thoughts on Boris Johnson’s press briefings, Priti Patel contradicting Downing Street while providing “clarity” on restrictions, the failed £22bn track-and-trace system, why he voted against extending free school meals and pay rises for nurses… and the beat goes on.
Meanwhile, Premier League officials have been told to tell club captains that “the eyes of the world are on us and we need to set an example”.
Football is again being asked to be the guiding light, while holding the status of the most convenient scapegoat. How about government setting the example?
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