“Stick to football,” pleaded FIFA, somewhat optimistically. “Not on your nelly,” cried the media classes. The 2022 World Cup has so far been dominated not so much by the beautiful game itself but by broadcasters opining on anything apart from the action.
On both the BBC and ITV, pundits and presenters have been prone to issuing long-winded justifications about why they’re happily working away in the human rights black hole that is Qatar. Yes, they’re being handsomely paid to watch four weeks of football but they feel deeply conflicted about it, honest.
From taking the knee to rainbow armbands, from LGBTQ+ rights to migrant workers’ safety, retired footballers have put down their golf clubs, picked up their megaphones and are falling over themselves to prove to viewers at home exactly how right-on they are. They’re being accused not only of having their cake and eating it, but then virtue-signalling about how the cake’s ingredients weren’t sustainable enough and the oven was wasting energy.
Wokery, hair gel, shiny shirts – this World Cup truly has it all. And that’s just in the TV studios. What do you mean there’s a tournament going on too? We’ve rated five key culprits for their inability to stay in their sporting lane…
Who? The amply-eared crisp salesman is BBC Sport’s main anchor. Well, when he’s not being slapped on the perma-tanned wrist for breaking BBC impartiality rules on Twitter.
Level of virtue-signalling: So high that he’s even started retrospectively hand-wringing. Lineker says: “We were sportswashed four years ago in Russia.” He apparently felt “uncomfortable” during the 2018 World Cup, adding that both he and the BBC should have spoken out about human rights issues.
Time spent talking about issues that aren’t football: How long have you got? Before the first game of the tournament between Qatar and Ecuador, BBC One declined to show the opening ceremony, instead broadcasting a monologue from Lineker. He barely mentioned football during a half-hour critique of matters off the pitch, from corruption in the FIFA bidding process to the host country’s record on human rights, discriminatory LGBTQ+ laws, women’s issues, civil liberties and treatment of migrant workers. Including segments with BBC News’ Ros Atkins and Jeremy Bowen, it was more like Newsnight than the footie. Try cheering along to that in the pub.
Time spent doing their actual job: Somewhat superfluously, after his lengthy monologue, Lineker added that he wouldn’t be following FIFA’s plea to “stick to football”. You don’t say, Gaz.
Annoyingness overall: High. Check his social media replies to see how divisive he is. 8/10
Who? The other of football’s two woke Garys, the sport’s self-appointed consciences-in-chief. Neville has carved out a niche on Sky as a ferociously well-informed pundit but has become increasingly politicised.
Level of virtue-signalling: Off the scale. Despite taking the coin of both ITV and Doha-based broadcaster beIN Sports, Neville has repeatedly said he “detests” Qatar’s human rights record.
Time spent talking about issues that aren’t football: Loads. Neville launched into a long justification, about his “long-term business and commercial relationships in south-east Asia” (yeah alright, Lord Sugar), while mentioning political parties, Heathrow Airport and the stock exchange. His latest diatribe appeared to criticise King Charles and the Prince of Wales for taking Qatari charitable donations.
Time spent doing their actual job: He can barely hop off his high horse long enough to mention football. Earlier this month, he guest-hosted Have I Got News For You and was eviscerated by Ian Hislop for his double standards. The clip went viral and Neville admitted he was “caught with a few punches to the face”. Only metaphorically speaking. Hislop is a lover, not a fighter.
Annoyingness overall: During his Old Trafford playing days, Neville was often described as the dressing room’s “unofficial shop steward”. We didn’t know the half of it. 8/10
Who? Former Lioness defender who made history as the first female pundit on Sky’s Super Sunday, before becoming the first permanent female host of BBC stalwart Football Focus.
Level of virtue-signalling: During the build-up to the tournament, Scott defended her decision to work in Qatar, while criticising the country’s human rights record and treatment of LGBTQ+ people. When FIFA threatened to give yellow cards to any player wearing a One Love armband, Scott defiantly wore one herself while standing pitchside before England’s opening match against Iran.
Time spent talking about issues that aren’t football: Not as much as you might think. While prominently wearing the armband, she did a piece to camera about Gareth Southgate’s starting XI without once mentioning the rainbow accessory. Scott left it to reporter Kelly Somers to say something.
Time spent doing their actual job: Scott does her tactical research and with 140 caps for England, knows her stuff. She might hit back at critics on social media but otherwise she keeps it business.
Annoyingness overall: As a woman of colour who was once in a long-term relationship with her Arsenal and England teammate Kelly Smith, trailblazer Scott has skin in the game. She also tends to let actions speak louder than words. 3/10
Who? Former Manchester United and Republic Of Ireland hardcase who now sports a salty old sea-dog’s silvery beard and gets exasperated in glass boxes beside football pitches for a living.
Level of virtue-signalling: Surprisingly high. ‘Keano’ is a straight-talking man of few words but gave it both barrels during ITV’s coverage of Argentina v Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. But if you accused him of virtue-signalling, he’d probably leave you in hospital traction.
Time spent talking about issues that aren’t football: Keane said the England team should have stuck to their guns and worn the armbands, regardless of what sanctions were imposed. He added that “the World Cup shouldn’t be here. The corruption regarding FIFA, the way the country treats migrant workers, gay people… you can’t treat people like that. The bottom line is, we’re talking about common decency.” Well said. Pass the prawn sandwiches.
Time spent doing their actual job: Having said his piece, Keano was straight back to calling Argentine players pampered softies who didn’t get sufficiently stuck in. Don’t go changing, Royston.
Annoyingness overall: Well, I’m not going to tackle the Captain Birdseye of the commentary box about it. Are you? 2/10
Who? Ex-Arsenal and England striker so beloved they surnamed him thrice: Ian Wright, Wright, Wright. Now a BBC and ITV pundit who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Level of virtue-signalling: Nuanced. Surprisingly, Wright partially agreed with FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s widely panned pre-tournament speech. Infantino urged Europeans not to criticise Qatar for its treatment of migrant workers who built the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure. In an emotional monologue on ITV, Wright compared the Gulf state’s issues to the UK: “Think about the Windrush generation and the fact that 80 per cent of them were not being paid and people have died waiting. When you are pointing the finger, you are pointing three at yourself.”
Time spent talking about issues that aren’t football: Wrighty is a staunch defender of the women’s game and England’s young black players.
Time spent doing their actual job: He mainly just wants the Three Lions to win and doesn’t care who knows it. Punching the air and banging on the studio windows, he’s the voice of fans inside the commentary box.
Annoyingness overall: His passion is so infectious, it’s impossible to stay mad at him for long. 2/10