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LONDON – Boris Johnson missed the first five government coordination meetings on the emerging coronavirus pandemic – but the British Prime Minister was on top of the European football crisis in less than 24 hours.
Between Cobra’s initial high-level meeting on COVID-19 in January 2020 and his possible presence at the fifth such event in March, Johnson reshuffled his cabinet and spent the better part of two weeks on vacation. But after the announcement of a European Super League proposal, the Prime Minister issued a declaration and held talks with key stakeholders within hours.
“If only the government’s response to the pandemic had been as swift as its response to the ‘football crisis’, we could all be in a very different position,” said Kit Yates, adviser to the independent group SAGE which rivals the official government opinion. pandemic panel. Yates noted that there was “no political capital to be done” at the start of the pandemic.
Gabriel Scally, professor of the Royal Society of Medicine and another member of the group, said: “It is great to see the Prime Minister intervene quickly on a very worrying international issue. What a contrast to last year when he was repeatedly absent from the playing field when the COVID-19 crisis began.
Indeed, there are plenty of examples of how the European Super League plan has caught Westminster’s attention in a way that other life and death issues haven’t. The explanation boils down to simple politics: Politicians care about voters, and voters – including much of the central Red Wall group that the two main parties are fighting over – care about football.
One of the objections from fans is that the proposed new league guarantees seats for 15 main clubs that cannot be relegated. Although five other clubs can enter the league each year on the basis of merit, this means second tier teams are less likely to be in the race – and existing competitions such as the Champions League and Premier League. League will suffer.
“The government quickly became aware of the feeling of injustice that surrounds these [Super League] proposals, ”said Andrew Forsey, national director of the Feeding Britain campaign. But he added: “Many families who see the proposals as unfair are having difficulty putting food on the table and paying their bills. Like us, they will expect ministers to show a similar sense of urgency to help them feed their children, earn a decent living, and keep a roof over their heads as we begin. to emerge from the pandemic.
Indeed, Johnson pushed his heels down for weeks during coronavirus lockdowns to avoid funding meals for poor schoolchildren, before finally having to turn around. The campaign to feed the children was led by footballer Marcus Rashford, who plays for Manchester United, one of the clubs to register for the Super League.
There are other examples of Johnson’s apparent lack of urgency on important issues. This month, the Prime Minister took a week to comment in public about the violence that erupted in Northern Ireland – in part because of the Brexit deal he agreed to. There was no emergency summit with the Republic of Ireland to resolve the tensions.
But Johnson met on Tuesday emergency talks with football governing bodies, including the Football Association, the Premier League and groups representing supporters. “If, as a football fan, I admire the Prime Minister’s swift response to news of the European Super League, I would be much more in awe if he increased his level of engagement on the post-Brexit situation in Ireland from North, “said Neale Richmond, Member of Parliament for Fine Gael in Ireland.
Meanwhile, ministers have already drawn up a list of options to block the Super League’s plan and have used harsh language to promise a crackdown if the sport’s governing bodies are unable to act. A long-promised review of fan involvement in football was suddenly launched the day after the scandal broke.
A senior Conservative MP said it was “ridiculous to be able to react so quickly to something like this” but take a slower approach on bigger issues.
The people’s game
But Johnson is far from alone in Westminster – or even among politicians across Europe. Labor leader Keir Starmer is holding his own emergency summit with fan groups and shadow ministers, who launched their own urgent war cries against the Super League this week. MPs got together quickly letters urge teams to drop proposals.
Conservatives who have spent their careers fighting government regulation are throwing their ideologies to the wind in an attempt to save existing football competitions. “Football goes beyond the typical ideological arguments that people often put forward,” said a government official, before insisting that state interventions would increase competition in the football market.
Early polls suggest that politicians of all stripes who have jumped on the issue may be on to a good thing, if they don’t disappoint fans. Football has a huge impact on voters and there is a clear consensus among the public on the issue. A poll by YouGov found that 79% of football fans oppose the creation of the Super League, while nearly three-quarters want to see club owners punished if they sign up.
“With football so ingrained in British culture and with such vibrant passions, no politician wants to appear out of touch or feel like they are doing anything to disrespect something that matters so much to so many people,” explained Patrick English, head of policy research. at YouGov. “So it’s probably not surprising that we see politicians bumping into themselves trying to give the impression of knowing their burgundy and blue through their burgundy and blue” – a reference to Aston’s football bands Villa and West Ham, which former Prime Minister David Cameron famously mixed together.
These are also the voters in question. The two main political parties are desperate to appeal to the so-called red wall of the North and Midlands seats that the Conservatives wrested from Labor in the 2019 election – voters for whom hollowed out local sports teams are a big part of their communities.
Will Tanner, director of the right-wing think tank Onward, said the Super League’s proposal “crystallizes the key political battlefield” in the politics of the day, on “where and where it belongs” and the feeling that assets of the community have been degraded.
“In these types of places, the types of places that are most politically important at the moment, these types of institutions, sports clubs and other community institutions, are vitally important,” said Tanner. . “So of course it’s going to resonate more with this government, and indeed with this Labor Party as well.
A focus group organized by Onward in Grimsby on the east coast of England about a year ago found that the only thing people wanted to improve the quality of the place was to move the football club to the center -ville, after it was relocated miles away. It’s this feeling that politicians want to tap into as part of the so-called ‘upgrade’ program – and the Super League has given them the perfect chance.
Tanner argued that the urgency with which Johnson had grasped the scandal showed that the Tories understood their new base, rather than a desperate attempt to go with the wind. “The speed of the government’s response is a testament to the fact that this has been baked into new conservatism, rather than in a panic mode or any kind of gut reaction,” he said.