Footballers deserve respect, not to be treated by ministers as punchbags

Paul MacInnes
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Stu Forster/AP</span>
Photograph: Stu Forster/AP

If you’re celebrating a goal in the coming weeks, or thinking of celebrating a goal, or know someone who might be, then please adhere to this simple, three-part process: first CONTROL (your feelings), then SHUN (your teammates), and PERFORM (a short dance move designed by yourself or your agent and easily replicable on social).

Remember those three words and they just might help keep you infinitesimally more safe this winter. And deny Matt Hancock another soapbox to jump on. Because, were you to have been following the news these past few days, you might have come away with the impression that one of the most pressing issues facing our country in January 2021 is an absence of social distancing in the close-contact sport known as Association Football.

Related: Clubs reminded to observe Covid-19 protocols after FA Cup controversies

It started on Monday with reports that people inside government were worried scenes of celebrations – both on-field and off – during the FA Cup third round had undermined the argument for keeping elite football going during the pandemic’s third wave. Then came off-the-record suggestions that, in fact, ministers had warned the football authorities about such behaviour. By the evening, the FA said it would be writing to clubs for the second time in a week to remind them of the “spirit” as well as the letter of their Covid regulations, while the referees’ body was also apparently putting fingers to keyboard to notify Premier League teams of the same thing.

Let’s not get this wrong. The pandemic is out of control in the UK and any and every measure that could reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus should be considered. Furthermore, young players who are fit as three butchers’ dogs have succumbed to serious versions of this disease; they are not immune from harm.

It’s also the case that, under current protocols, players are not forbidden from hugging or jumping on or performing an elaborate dance routine with their teammates when they score. And when it comes to celebrations among athletes who have tested negative for Covid (often more than once a week) and who have been working under protocols which are rigorous beyond the standards required by government, you’re not talking about a key vector of infection.

Yet, here we are, talking about it. And there’s an argument for saying that you might as well ban goal celebrations now anyway. It would nip the controversy in the bud and be altogether of a piece with much of the current version of the game, absent of so many of the aspects that set the heart soaring in normal times. The roar of the crowd? Gone. The thrill of the ball hitting the back of the net? Subject to review by VAR. As José Mourinho put it when asked about being made to refrain from celebration: “Because of the VAR, I adapt and I went in a certain direction to controlling emotions. I believe the players can do a little bit of the same.”

No biggie. Just dim the lights a little further and we can all move on. Until it’s the next thing. Because there’s something about this row that feels remarkably reminiscent of those heady early days of the pandemic, when footballers suddenly became the focus of government ire. The days when Hancock, the health secretary, either clumsily or wilfully managed to conflate a dispute between club owners and players about who should pay for the shutdown of football, with ensuring the NHS had enough funds to survive the most severe crisis in its history. “Given the sacrifices many people are making … the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution,” he told the nation in one of those awkward press conferences.

Related: Premier League issues 'enhanced' Covid rules in bid to avoid suspension

Now the attention has refocused, except with players cast not as millionaire dilettantes unwilling to muck in but as selfish flouters of the rules that allow society to function (or badly malfunction in this case, but whatever). It forms part of a broader miasma in which social media, the right-wing press and the media briefings that feed them call out “Covidiots” for thoughtless infractions such as buying a takeaway coffee they’re allowed to buy by law.

It’s all a useful distraction from a dashboard of key metrics that shows the UK (and, specifically, England) mishandling this pandemic with deadly aplomb. To be an elite footballer (or an elite football competition) leaves you at risk of being dragged into the popular discourse at any time. The spotlight is unyielding and critical judgment unsparing.

That’s the reason non-attributable threats against playing on are unlikely to come to anything. If football does halt again as it did last spring, it should do so out of concern for its employees. Not just the players but the staff needed to run the training grounds, drive the coaches and operate the stadium on match day. To shut it down because it’s setting a bad example, however, would not only be petty (and likely in bad faith), it would also mean you couldn’t treat it as a punchbag any more.

As much as this government enjoys throwing dead cats about, as much as it employs a rotating cast of bogey men, it also has an unfortunate knack for recognising what matters to the country. And football is one of those things. It recognises its importance to millions of people, an importance that has grown as the lockdowns ran on and into each other and the possibility of escape – if only in your mind – became ever harder.

Kill the atmosphere, kill the tension, replace celebration with minutes of video analysis, but watching just one shot, one pass or tackle can still make everything OK for a moment. And for those who had forgotten that, or never knew it, the pandemic has reminded us.