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Cool down the outrage and give football’s Covidiots a little empathy | Barney Ronay | Football


What did you do in the culture wars, Daddy? Cue the haunted stare across the parlour room, the weak-chinned stammer, the single bead of sweat above the starched collar.

Well, I … That is … I struggled to come up with relentlessly partisan opinions. I was unable to be convincingly enraged on a daily basis. And that, children, is why I sit around all day in an Edwardian armchair rather than hosting an urgent new current affairs show or arguing profitably on social media with celebrity chefs.

These are inflamed and inflammatory times. This is one of the few non-inflammatory opinions it’s possible to hold right now. We’re all having a massive argument: we can at least agree on that.

Even in the attic room of sport there has been a notable shift in the past few years. Blame must be doled out. Somebody must always be wrong. Polarising polemic: this is what humans find enragingly moreish, like dogs being tickled with a sharp stick.

So it has proved to be this week with the rise of the Covidiots in English football. Players in the men’s teams of Tottenham, Fulham, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Manchester City have, it is alleged, broken the coronavirus regulations over the festive period. More dramatically a group of players in the Manchester City and Arsenal women’s teams travelled to Dubai and have seen their WSL games this weekend cancelled as a result, a source of huge frustration for all involved.

What is the correct response to this? It was inevitable the citadel would begin to crumble at some point. The new strain of the virus is clearly hyper-contagious. Humans are flawed and easily distracted. And footballers are only humans, often away from home, often larrikin types by nature. The real surprise is how long it took.

At which point, back to the here and now, and that urge to winch the great creaking finger of blame into place, to see not only stupidity or weariness, but moral depravity, some kind of profound identity fault.

The Football Association has duly been trashed for failing to step in and punish those involved. This is standard practice for those of us in the football-centred universe, a place where the English FA is still deemed all-powerful in human affairs. Meanwhile, the women’s players in particular have been the object of visceral personal criticism, accused of trashing the basic integrity and professionalism of their league.

There are two things worth saying about this. The first is to clarify the role of the FA. It has been a reflex response all week: how is it the FA can ban a player for unwittingly using a racist word, but not for seeming to endanger lives?

This sounds logical. It isn’t. Agreeable as it may be to have Someone To Blame, there is nothing the FA can sensibly do about potential Covid law-breaches by third-party employees that have nothing to do with actual football.

In practice the FA can only sensibly take action when a player has been convicted of something concrete, or appears to have done a specific thing – use of racist language; gambling stuff – that goes against its own specific rules. The punishments doled out may be inconsistent. But there is at least some process here, a locus standi to act.

Otherwise the FA is not the police, the CPS or a firm of private detectives. What do we want it to do? Hammer down Sergio Reguilón’s door with one of those hand-held metal battering cylinders? Stake out Benjamin Mendy’s house and interrogate his New Year’s Eve chef (and the chef was the really galling detail here: who needs a chef, who craves above all a chef in these difficult times?)?

EFL and Premier League clubs do have a direct employer relationship with their players, with the right to investigate and discipline. And there has been unease here too. Pep Guardiola has appealed, a little weirdly, for sympathy for chef-boy. Players at other clubs have continued to appear in match-day squads.

This is the second thing worth saying. There is, in the end, nothing to be gained from being outraged at every footballer who makes a mistake or a bad call on this. The collective effort has been commendable over the past year.

But we all feel wearied by the routines, forced into odd shapes by this wretched tentacular microbe. And most of us aren’t risking our long-term physical health by getting into a state of extreme team-sport exertion three times a week, while also being judged, ranked and microscrutinised at the weirdest of all possible times.

The women in particular are being hammered. The consequences of a careless decision have been dire (despite City’s players having the club’s permission and Manchester being in tier 3 at the time). But it is worth bearing in mind Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski and Gerard Piqué were also in Dubai, also travelling from battened-down countries. There has been no backlash, no talk of Piqué betraying a generation. What is the difference? Why is it OK for Ronaldo, but not Lucy Bronze?

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This is the other thing. Bad stuff happens. Bad choices are made, sometimes with real-life consequences. But none of these people are responsible for creating this impossibly complex situation, one that feeds and exists on these hard-wired human habits. Perhaps it might be time – even in football’s zero sum game of winners and losers, frauds and GOATS – to halt the wars, to understand a little more, condemn a little less.

While we’re at it, as the pipes of peace are trilling through the morning mist, can I add that Ole Gunnar Solskjær is doing better at Manchester United and that’s a fun thing. Liverpool are still a good team. Middle-aged Americans pushing over a fence is not a fascist coup d’état. And with a firm hand, and a little species-empathy, we will get through this.



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