In November of 2020, when announcing a second lockdown, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked what was amongst the most pertinent questions on the minds of the vast majority of the UK’s over 68 million citizens. Despite the tens of thousands of deaths due to one of the worst pandemics in modern history, what many in the country were concerned about was likely the same thing that many hundreds of millions internationally were thinking: what about Premier League football?
Ever the opportunist, Johnson produced the boyish charm that had won over so many, and gave a thumbs up, stating “yes to the Premier League”. Whilst matches were still to be played behind closed doors, the return of the Premier League was a psychological boost to many across the nation. When it returned in full force, the brand that has become a worldwide phenomenon across the world through a combination of international marketing, recognition due to imperial legacy, and the seemingly endless supply of billionaire monopoly money also carried huge economic implications domestically. A report completed in January of 2022 stated that the Premier League contributed £7.6 bn to the UK economy during 2019/2020, despite the presence of the pandemic. £3.6 bn of total tax contributions were made during that year from Premier League football, with 94,000 jobs depending on the league. Even the comparatively minor break in Premier League activity due to the 2022 World Cup was cited as causing significant economic difficulties. In March of 2023, current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was eager to claim that confidence in the economy of the country was returning due to overall growth of 0.3% in January, following a sharp contraction in December. The reasons? Higher school attendance… and the return of Premier League football after a pause for the World Cup.
The Social Presence of Gary Lineker
Given how interwoven the Premier League is to the United Kingdom economically, culturally, and reputationally, it is no surprise that the most prominent figures involved in its presentation would carry a significant social presence. Arguably no one fits this description more than Gary Lineker. Lineker is the host of the incredibly popular bi-weekly television programme Match of the Day, a highlight and analysis show of the weekend’s Premier League action. Lineker was a prolific marksman for England during the 1980s, scoring 48 goals in 80 international appearances. He was on the pitch for Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal, and in the same year, placed third in Ballon d’Or voting. He is now the highest paid BBC presenter, earning an annual salary of £1.35m per year, and a noted left-wing media presence. He reportedly suffered racial abuse as a child growing up in Leicester for his dark features, despite being white, something he shares with his second wife Danielle Bux, a Welsh model whose grandfather was from present-day Bangladesh. He is a known advocate for teaching modern foreign languages in schools, publicly supported the UK remaining in the European Union, and in 2016 criticised dental checks for refugees in order to verify age, asking “what’s happening to our country”? It was therefore not entirely unpredictable for him to comment on the United Kingdom’s current-and highly controversial-migration policy.
The Migration Issue
In December of 2022, the High Court of the UK approved a policy that would allow illegal migrants to the United Kingdom, including asylum seekers, to be transported to Rwanda. This was a solution to a problem described by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, whose parents are of Indian origin and arrived from Kenya and Mauritius in the 1960s with virtually no resources, as the “global migration crisis”.
“100 million people could qualify for protection under our current laws”, she stated to the House of Commons on March 7 of 2023. “Let’s be clear: they are coming here”. This statement brought out inimical laughter from the opposition benches in parliament, but Braverman soldiered on, citing a 500% increase in what she described as “small-boat crossings” in two years. “They will not stop coming here until the world knows that if you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed”. Echoes of support could be heard from behind her, enunciated by the nodding of Prime Minister Sunak, who is also of Indian descent.
A short video was also released by Braverman that same day. In it she began by stating that last year, “over 45,000 people made the unsafe, unnecessary, and illegal journey across the Channel”. Whilst this introductory figure seems to make a mockery of her assertion to the House of Commons to the effect that 100 million migrants were coming to the UK, Braverman continued by bemoaning that “£7m per day” was spent on hotels for asylum seekers. “If you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay. You will be detained and removed to your home country if safe, or a safe third country, like Rwanda”.
The Response to Braverman
The plan provoked great reaction from many. However, the vast majority do not carry the cultural and social banner of football with them whenever they speak publicly. Gary Lineker does. At 1:18 pm on the 7th of March, he responded to Braverman’s short video announcement by tweeting “Good heavens, this is beyond awful…”.
After receiving virtually immediate criticism for this tweet, Lineker did not blink, and further dug in by tweeting: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”
Did Lineker Have a Point?
Let’s examine the facts behind Lineker’s claims regarding the intake of refugees, and the UK’s treatment of the “most vulnerable people”. In the United Kingdom, 74,751 applications for asylum were put forth in 2022 in relation to 89,398 individuals (a figure which includes dependents). Whilst the House of Commons library will state that the refusal rate “at initial decision” was only 24%, official government statistics report that only 23,841 individuals (again, including dependants) have successfully gained entry through an application for asylum. France received 156,455 asylum applications in 2022, with 42,243 applications having been successful (a rate of 27%). Germany processed 244,132 asylum claims, with 136,713 applications having been successful. What makes Germany’s number striking, however, is that the war in Ukraine is not the only major contributory factor. 70,976 Syrian nationals submitted an application for asylum in Germany. 36,358 applications came from Afghans. The UK will proudly state that 98% of all applications from Afghanistan and 99% of all applications from Syria are successful, but if Germany held those same statistics, and applied them to the two aforementioned countries alone, that would mean over 100,000 successful asylum applications-over four times what the United Kingdom allows. In actuality, just under 57% of all asylum applications in Germany were successful. Regardless, a deep dive into statistics suggests that Lineker had a point regarding numbers.
However, it could be argued that his reference to “language not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30’s” is what really stoked fire. The Nazi’s labeling of supposedly undesirable components of both German and world society as “enemies of the state”-and their forcible removal of such societal components-is a well-established fact. So is the use of economic arguments to get rid of those same undesirable elements such as Jews and disabled people, reminiscent of Braverman citing hotel costs. Whilst Braverman was certainly not advocating murder, she has a history of enjoying being a livewire for the far right and a firm opponent of “woke rubbish”, and knew the audience to which she meant to appeal. Her language and position had the backing of the Prime Minister as well, who stated on the 10th of March that he hoped the “Linekers of the world” would eventually realise they had “got it wrong”.
Many of the most prominent figures in the British football landscape, however, did not appear to think that Lineker “got it wrong”. After pressure came from the BBC, Lineker was forced to “step back” from his role at the BBC while the corporation determined what they should do regarding his use of social media. His colleagues on Match of the Day responded immediately. Alan Shearer, the all-time record goal scorer in Premier League history and fellow pundit on the show, informed the BBC he would not be appearing on the show on the upcoming weekend. Former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright, one of the most important Afro-Caribbean athletes in British society, quickly showed solidarity. They were joined by other pundits and former players Micah Richards and Jermaine Jenas. The BBC announced that the programme would air without studio presentation of punditry. On Saturday, 11 March, the programme aired for 20 minutes. Alex Scott, one of the most prominent English female footballers and pundit on the show Football Focus pulled out of her duties, stating that it “(didn’t) feel right” for her to continue. As more and more prominent personalities in sport media refused to work with the BBC, the company was forced to cancel its sports programmes. Prime Minister Sunak now tried to distance himself from the growing catastrophe, stating that it was “a matter for them, not the government” and that “not everyone will always agree”. Lineker was reinstated the following week, and on March 18 was presenting an FA Cup quarterfinal between Manchester City and Burnley-alongside Alan Shearer and Micah Richards. Just over three months later, on 29 June, the United Kingdom Court of Appeal ruled the migration plan Lineker criticised to be unlawful. This is undoubtedly going to be the subject of yet further appeals, but why had such a big fuss been made over Lineker? Is it who he is, or the issue he commented on? If it is both, how much of each component is responsible?
The Social and Political Presence of Footballing Icons in Today’s World
Prominent footballing characters have always had the ability to have a large social presence. Those who can remember the metaphysical talents of Thierry Henry will also quickly recall his “Stand Up, Speak Up” campaign against racism. David Beckham posed for gay magazines, and Marcus Rashford became an MBE for his efforts to feed starving children who were not receiving free school meals during lockdown. Lineker, however, commented on a human rights issue in a manner that directly took on the established authorities in the society that he represented in a way that made such authorities feel threatened enough to, at the very least, silence him whilst they discussed his situation. Perhaps that is a symbol not of his importance as a footballer, but of the issue itself. Support for racial equality, homosexuality, or hungry children would not have produced such a reaction-but support for refugees-a largely non-white, marginalised social group who are hungry more often than not-did. Lineker will continue to sleep well in his home in Barnes, south-west London, a diverse population surrounding him, and, in all likelihood, supporting him. He will be proud that, as a footballing and media icon, he can socially influence people and established precedents with a clear conscience and with support in case of reprisal. As the world has grown smaller due to technology, and, specifically, social media, prominent social and political forces will continue to cross-pollinate each other more and more. Football, whose influence on Britain and the world has only grown due to such a smaller world, will see its most important figures under an ever-increasing spotlight, resulting in the magnification of all of their viewpoints-whether on a goal of the month contest or a policy that might influence generations to come. The social and political importance of football, whilst never having been absent, is only set to grow.
How much social and political influence do prominent footballers have?
Is their influence positive or negative? Why?
What social and political influence have footballer’s historically had, and what influence are they likely to have in the future?