Did you see the prime minister in the fancy seats at Wembley on Wednesday? He seemed to have come dressed as a particularly brutal Matt Lucas impersonation of himself. As for the young lady standing to his left and smiling indulgently at him, it’s nice that his … carer, is it? … takes him out for the day and buys him a football top. But I do hope there weren’t tears in the car on the way home when Boris Johnson was told he wasn’t going to be allowed to run on to the pitch and do one of his special footer kicks on Sunday. (There certainly wasn’t a mask in the car on the way home, as photos of Johnson show , but I guess it’s only the help that catches it that way, so … basically victimless.)
Politicians and the football, then. A marriage made in the realms of guaranteed ridicule. Yet still they come. Or, in the case of Lee Anderson, still they stay away. Lee is one of the breakout plonkers of the tournament, being the Ashfield MP who early on announced that he’d be boycotting all England games because taking the knee was Marxist or something. One of the great achievements of Gareth Southgate has been bubbling his squad so fastidiously that no player has yet found out they are being boycotted by Lee. Should this hermetic seal hold up to and including Sunday’s final, analysts believe that ignorance will amount if not to bliss, then certainly to an extra yard of pace on every England forward.
Meanwhile, as England have progressed, Lee’s self-sabotaging stance has brought increasing gaiety to the nation, with his latest media appearance a masterclass in a particular variety of male sulk. He still wouldn’t be watching the first major final England have been in since 1966, he told LBC, but would instead spend the game “unpacking boxes”. Thoughts and prayers with Lee. There does seem to be an awful lot to unpack with him.
It’s quite something to think that the government went into the first lockdown last year attempting to score cheap points on footballers’ pay. They are now exiting all restrictions desperately trying to piggyback on what footballers have brought to the country, despite Johnson having managed England’s pandemic like Steve McClaren.
This, needless to say, does not tell the entire story of the government’s encounters with football over the past year and a quarter. It all began last April with a pious little lecture from a guy by the name of Matt Hancock – remember him? At the time he was spouting off, Hancock was the health secretary still allowing hospital patients to be discharged to care homes without even being tested. Priorities, priorities. “I think the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution,” intoned Matt, from his Downing Street podium. “Take a pay cut and play their part.” Incredibly, it would take a full 15 months for Matt himself to take a pay cut, but at least Certain Events mean we’re spared his ministerial take on “the Three Lions” now. I’m not sure I could handle a broadcast round featuring Matt honking “I do believe it is coming home, but I urge people to bring it home responsibly!”
Next up for the government and football were two bruising clashes against Marcus Rashford (they lost both), and the awards of MBEs for services to charity to both Rashford and Jordan Henderson. Spring brought some posturing about the European Super League that seemed deeply questionable, coming as it did days after the chief executive of one of the clubs involved had visited Johnson’s chief of staff for a meeting in Downing Street. And the curtain-raiser to this tournament was of course a load of mealy mouthed failure among ministers to condemn the booing of players taking the knee, apparently to stoke their horribly ill-advised culture wars. Today, England players are reported to be planning to donate any Euro 2020 winners bonuses to the NHS should they triumph, and are already donating all their match fees. Why don’t these pampered, selfish etcetera-etceteras do something worthwhile with their cash, like buy Boris Johnson some more gold wallpaper or another holiday to Mustique?
Arguably, then, the government has had an absolute shitter against football this pandemic. But instead of owning it – which Lee Anderson is at least doing in his mad, sad, way – we now see ministers in full reverse-ferret mode. Thursday brought eight tweets of excruciating faux apology from the failed politician Laurence Fox, who now seems to regret his decision to tip all over England’s “woke babies”.
What is to be done to stop this? I believe that all politicians should simply be fitted with an electric collar for the duration of any tournament, which administers shocks of increasing intensity each time they mention the subject, and a full 300 megavolts if they deploy the words “it’s coming home”.
That, of course, would be rather a mild sort of just deserts for Priti Patel, widely believed to administer the electrodes to a subordinate for bringing her the wrong coffee, or for failing to be “can do” about some plan to install artificially grown megalodons in the Channel to deter migrant boats. Patel was early out of the traps on the football front this summer, pointedly arguing that fans had a right to boo the team taking the knee and dismissing the practice as “gesture politics”. Or as Priti now puts it, in a tweet accompanying pictures of her baring her teeth in an England strip: “Just brilliant. Well done Three Lions. Football’s coming home.” Oh dear. It’s not yet clear if football is coming home, but the chickens certainly are.
You can even read this morning that the government is worried they might “jinx” the final if they commit to a bank holiday to celebrate an England win. In which case, I think the message to them must be very clear. Namely: don’t worry. PLEASE don’t worry. Nothing you do, ever, at all, has any effect on it either way. None of it is for you, none of it owes anything to you, and nothing you say about it should be taken with anything other than a laugh and a cordial four-letter invitation to shut up, for ever. We can’t keep politics out of sport, and nor should we seek to. The two are entwined and always have been, just not in the way the various blazers want. But we should always, always keep politicians out of sport – because the one thing you can absolutely guarantee is that no matter what happens on Sunday, they’ll be painting footballers as the enemy again soon enough. Set your watch by it.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist