Boris Johnson chose to wear an England shirt last night (“Boris 10” was printed on the back). So did home secretary Priti Patel (“Migrants 0”, perhaps). Pretty crude stuff but you can understand it. Look at us, these photos scream, we really are just like you. And on another day, who knows, we might have all been fooled.
Unfortunately for Johnson and Patel, however, Gary Neville was working for ITV last night. And in a few short words, spoken after England had beaten Denmark, Neville dismantled any attempt by this government to cash in on the success of our national football team. “The standard of leaders in this country in the last couple of years has been poor,” he said. “Looking at that man there [Gareth Southgate], it’s everything a leader should be – respectful, humble, tell[s] the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic, Gareth Southgate, he really is unbelievable.”
Neville is our shrewdest and most eloquent football pundit. He picks his words carefully. So no one could be in any doubt that, by listing Southgate’s qualities – “respectful, humble, tell[s] the truth, genuine” – Neville was highlighting all the things our political leaders lack.
It is often said that criticism simply bounces off Boris Johnson, but this will sting. Not because the words are particularly harsh – he is used to much worse – but because he has lost control of the narrative. England has just reached its first major football final since 1966. This should be a moment of unity and – political manna from heaven – a chance for the prime minister to lead the celebrations. Instead, “Gary Neville” is trending on social media and every news outlet is running the story. It is enough to make that England shirt cling a bit tighter to the tummy.
Politicians can’t force people to think in a certain way. You can’t simply will yourself into being a “man of the people” – no matter how many hard hats or football shirts you wear. Neville’s comments chimed with the public in a way that “Boris 10” never could. Frustrating, I’m sure. But true.
Political commentator Patrick O’Flynn described Neville’s words as “a nakedly political statement”, adding that “football analysts shouldn’t be telling voters during sports broadcasts that they voted for the wrong person”. Well, I’m sorry, but this government can hardly have it both ways. It’s a bit much to start complaining now that football and politics don’t mix when they have done all they can to politicise the sport. Priti Patel supported the decision of some fans to boo the players for “taking the knee”; now she is wearing her England shirt and tweeting lion emojis.
Should football be political? I don’t know. That’s not really the point. The point is that it is political. Furthermore, the government has deliberately made it as political as possible. Gary Neville was simply following their lead. The difference is, people seem to actually hear what he has to say.