The government’s scapegoating of footballers is designed to distract from its own failings

Melissa Reddy
Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaks at a digital COVID-19 news conference at 10 Downing Street in London: via REUTERS

During the daily government briefing on Thursday, there was an impassioned plea from health secretary Matt Hancock. ”Given the sacrifices many people are making, the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution,” he said.

Given the sacrifices many people are making, you’d think the first thing the health secretary could do is at least fulfil the country’s mandatory seven-day isolation period after testing positive for coronavirus, which due to “our own science” is half of the World Heath Organisation’s guidance.

Or, as Gary Neville so eloquently put it on Twitter, calling players out “when he can’t get tests in place for NHS staff is a f*****g cheek!” As of Thursday, only 0.4 per cent of key health workers had been tested.

Julian Knight, the Conservative MP, underscored the “moral vacuum” footballers operate in.

This is the man who has consistently been in opposition to paying higher benefits to those unable to work due to disability or illness and was in favour for reduction in spending on welfare benefits. Oh, he’s also the fella that voted against higher taxes against banks and has authored guides on how to avoid tax.

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, went in two-footed too, calling it “criminal that Premier League footballers haven’t moved more quickly to take pay cuts and deferrals.”

One can only imagine the strength of the terminology they’d need to use when examining politics. In the meantime, it’s unsurprisingly all aboard the footballer-bashing bandwagon.

First, as these pages have reflected, it jars that the eighth richest football club in the world, who have the highest-paid executive in the Premier League and are owned by a man with an estimated net worth of £4.3bn, announced a 20 per cent salary cut for 550 non-football staff who would be furloughed “where appropriate”.

Elite football is not immune from the financial impact of the pandemic but that the news from Tottenham arrived when it was also revealed their chairman Daniel Levy’s salary ballooned to £7m, courtesy of a £3m bonus for delivering a new stadium that was both hugely over budget and late, was all the more galling.

Spurs had followed – no surprises here – Newcastle, the subject of a possible £340m Saudi Arabian takeover, in turning to the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Owner Mike Ashley’s net worth is just under £2bn, but the decisions of both clubs prompted the pile-in on players.

Levy’s statement on Tottenham’s decision read as a challenge – in capitals and bolded – to footballers to cut their salaries.

If they weren’t an easy enough target already with the masses having an automated distaste for these largely working class lads who made good, such actions from inside the game loaded the weapons.

It is perfectly normal that it doesn’t sit right that staff, many on low to average wages, are being furloughed while players exercising in their mansions are still pocketing mega money.

The decisions taken in regards to non-playing staff are not on them. Importantly, no high earner in the division has rejected a pay cut or deferral.

It is quite the opposite. There is a willingness from players to do their bit – as reflected by their individual responses to the Covid-19 crisis – but they’ve been told by the Professional Footballers’ Association to wait for a “structured and unified approach to ensure a fair response across the leagues.”

The PFA have not been a lighthouse at the best of times and it is no shock that they are dithering during the worst. Gordon Taylor, its chief executive and the highest-paid trade union leader in the world, is still pocketing £2.2m a year after announcing his resignation. That deserves angry column inches on its own.

The players, meanwhile, are being shot at from all directions under the erroneous narrative that they are detached and devoid of a social conscious.

Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford pictured speaking to BBC Breakfast (Twitter)

Marcus Rashford is 22 and when schools in the country were shut down, he teamed up with the charity FareShare so children in Manchester could still gain access to free food.

Andy Robertson, a regular supporter of the foodbanks in Liverpool, made a major donation – anonymously – to help keep six of them in Glasgow and surrounding areas going.

Wilfried Zaha offered free use of 50 properties to NHS staff who are battling the coronavirus outbreak in central London hospitals.

Bournemouth, Brighton, Everton and Burnley’s players having been reaching out to vulnerable and socially isolated fans with phone calls.

Hector Bellerin, Callum Wilson, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Reece James and Andros Townsend have fronted the #FootballUnited initiative, raising money for local communities.

Tyrone Mings has offered a free term of coaching for kids of NHS workers at his academy.

Chelsea’s squad made a sizeable donation to the club’s foundation that has benefitted several local charities.

Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United have kept their local foodbanks stocked, while players of the league leaders have also been privately financially assisting Alder Hey and Liverpool Women’s Hospital.

Norwich City’s squad, manager Daniel Falke and the executive committee agreed to donate a percentage of their salaries to buy and distribute food and essential toiletry packages in the community.

Toby Alderweireld has donated iPads to hospitals and nursing homes.

This list can go on for an age and still not properly snapshot what players have been doing for the communities they were raised in and now work in, given the silence most of them request for their acts of kindness.

Footballers are also the highest taxed individuals in the UK. Ernst & Young reported that for the 2016-17 season, they had contributed £1.1bn in income tax. This is in a country that was found to be the world’s biggest enabler of corporate tax dodging in an international investigation last year. The amount that is funnelled away annually is more than three times the NHS budget.

When politicians are pointing fingers at the players, consider all the other scandals like the above that they are detracting your attention from.

Footballers will agree deferrals and wage cuts. Their charitable actions, however much they are ignored or forced into the background, have proved that their intention is largely to do the right thing.

It may come slower than people would like, but it will arrive, which is more than can be said for some of those doing the scapegoating.

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