Just over a month ago, Premier League football players were at the receiving end of political scapegoating after Matt Hancock equated the sacrifices being made by the NHS to the money being earned by footballers. The health secretary claimed that they needed to play their part by taking a pay cut during one of the government’s daily briefings. This brings Project Restart, the plan to resume the play of league football in England, back to the debating table.
Millionaire business owners, tax evaders, and even the football clubs themselves did not get a similar call-out from Matt Hancock during the briefing. The health secretary chose to focus on the easy target: the greedy, spoilt, entitled footballers.
Of course, focusing on the amount of money footballers earn as a way to smear them is nothing new. Most footballers are from a working-class background and are often criticised for the money they spend –– or don’t spend. Tabloid papers attempting to smear said individuals only become more frequent, and certainly more damning, for black players.
And after all the criticism, footballers are now being held up as the key to boosting the morale of the nation.
The Prime Minister said that the return of elite football on our television screens would be a “much-needed boost”, while Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said that restarting the Premier League season would “lift the spirits of the nation”.
The continued problems with testing and the lack of infrastructure to track and trace new cases having yet to be implemented, it is still too early to say that football should be returning. Especially given that the game isn’t likely to become contact-free any time soon.
I am all for going back. But I am not for going back when it is not clear on how the steps are going to be made.Troy Deeney, Captain of Watford F.C.
Watford’s Troy Deeney spoke out about Project Restart, as the plans have been dubbed, asking the question of how we can possibly justify a contact sport returning: “At corners, Watford have 11 men back so you’re talking about having 18 or 19 men in a penalty area. That’s not social distancing.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Danny Rose took aim at the emphasis being put on the claim that football would boost morale during an Instagram live: “I don’t give a f*ck about the nation’s morale, people’s lives are at risk. Football shouldn’t even be spoken about coming back until the numbers have dropped massively.”
And it seems that the majority of the country don’t care that much about football either. A YouGov poll asked the public if the return of Premier League football would boost their morale – 73 per cent said no. Clearly people have more important things to worry about, who knew.
Footballing authorities have announced that a number of measures will be put in place to keep players and coaching staff safe, and it’s true that players will be monitored very closely in an attempt to keep them safe. Given the lacklustre efforts at keeping testing levels high, it is a slap in the face for all those who are still begging to be tested when reports say footballers are to be tested twice a week.
We think that just because these players are young and rich, with access to top class facilities and regular testing, that these footballers will somehow be immune to the effects of Covid-19. But these players do not live in a bubble.
Dean Smith, Aston Villa’s manager, has revealed on Sky’s The Football Show that two of his players may be unavailable for their battle to remain in the Premier league: “We’ve got a player who is asthmatic, we’ve got a player whose mother-in-law is in remission and living with the family.”
Those that don’t see the problem with football returning, or just don’t care about the welfare of footballers, should know that many other families across the country are returning to work, or have worked throughout the lockdown. They might say that these families have no choice but to go back in potentially unsafe conditions given the small amount of money they earn. It’s undoubtedly true that footballers are in a privileged position, with enough money that they do not need to work should they not want to.
Saying this, we need to stop pretending that football is so essential to our lives that the wealth of footballers is more important than their safety! This of course includes the safety of their families, as well as the other non-playing staff who need to work as part of the efforts to restart the football season. Health and safety does not stop being important just because someone earns a lot of money; nor does earning a lot of money mean you have to stay silent.
Trust me, I am not one to stand here and claim that footballers lives are now terrible because the situation they have been put in. But don’t pretend you want football back because of morale or because it’s ‘only fair’ because others are working. You want football back and that’s the bottom line.
God forbid, if anyone was to die because of our selfish desperation for a bit of entertainment – how essential would football be then?
Words by Kate Jackson