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Lineker is following a long tradition of football sticking it to the authorities

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The issue of migrants arriving on the Kent coast in small boats has become culture war territory for a Conservative UK government keen to distract from its many domestic failures. However, the Tories found a surprising opponent in Gary Lineker - BBC Sport presenter, former England captain, one of a few men to have scored more than ten goals at World Cups, a national treasure.

The BBC, apparently under pressure from government supporters, stood Lineker down from presenting its flagship Saturday night Premier League highlights package, Match of the Day, after he criticised the government’s policy and language on Twitter. After an “I am Spartacus” moment when, one after another, senior presenters refused to appear on the BBC in solidarity with Lineker, the national broadcaster was forced to back down. Lineker et al will return.

At the time of writing, the full repercussions of the situation are yet to play out, but Lineker is just the latest in a long line of footballers willing to stand up to governments.


Sport and politics; a symbiotic mix

When you see a politician come out to say that politics and sport should never mix, they’re either ignorant of history, incredibly naïve, or both. The Romans understood the value of ‘bread and circuses’, the modern Olympics has a long history of political controversy, and Association football has been political from its outset.

Association football, an amalgam of football rules from schools and clubs across England, was established in 1863 with the foundation of the Football Association and the agreement of its initial rulebook. The game spread and evolved, first across Britain and Ireland and then to the rest of the world.

Everywhere it went, football started off as the game of the elites, as they were the only ones with the time and money for leisurely pursuits. The game, therefore, took on an ‘us versus them’ aspect from the off, and many countries had a pivotal moment when the underdogs broke through. In England, that was when Blackburn Olympic beat Old Etonians to win the 1883 FA Cup, wresting the game away from the upper classes – on the field, at least. In India, when a bare-footed Mohan Bagan team beat a British regiment side to win the IFA Shield in 1911, it was a key moment in the growing Indian independence movement.


Footballers challenging authority

Football is a powerful platform precisely because of its popular appeal. It helped define new, emerging nations such as Uruguay and Argentina in the early 20th century and played a role in nationalist awakenings in Egypt, Turkey and India. By the 1920s, the sport was so influential that the world’s first fascist regime, Mussolini’s Italy, leveraged football to create a sense of nationhood at home and superiority abroad.

But even Mussolini had his opponents. In one famous photo taken at the opening match at Fiorentina’s new ground in 1931, La Viola midfielder Bruno Neri is photographed refusing to perform the ‘Roman salute’, keeping his hands to his sides while his teammates hold their right arms outstretched. It was a bold move for a man who would go on to die as a partisan fighting Mussolini during WWII. The stadium of Neri’s hometown club Faenza was named after him in 1946. At least five stadiums or sports complexes in Italy are named after fallen footballing partisans. Meanwhile, the Via Calciatrici del ’33 (Way of the Women Footballers of ’33) in Milan celebrates the women who defied Il Duce to continue playing when the regime outlawed it on ‘health grounds’.

Elsewhere in the world, footballers have entered mythology for their stance. The 1981 film Escape to Victory, featuring Messrs Pelé, Ardiles, Moore and Stallone, plus extras from Ipswich Town, was based on actual events from the infamous ‘Death Match’ of Kyiv on 9 August 1942. Here, a select XI from the occupying Luftwaffe (German Air Force) took on a local Ukrainian bakery team called FC Start, which was made up predominantly of footballers from the Dynamo and Lokomotiv clubs. Despite being starving, intimidated, and with the ref against them, FC Start won 5-3. Four FC Start players would later die at Nazi hands, but contrary to post-war Soviet propaganda, their deaths were not related to the football match.

The FC Start players were playing for national pride, the football pitch being the one leveller they had against the occupier. In a different theatre of the same conflict, in Yugoslavia (modern-day Croatia), the Hajduk Split side was an important standard bearer for the anti-fascists in World War II and was the first to display the new national flag – a red, white and blue tricolor with a red star – during its tour of the Mediterranean playing Allied Forces teams.

In Portugal, the Académica de Coimbra team and fans’ protests at the 1969 Portuguese Cup final, which the club lost narrowly to Eusébio’s Benfica, are credited by some with being the moment that gave the Portuguese public the confidence to stand up to the ailing Estado Novo (New State), Western Europe’s longest-running dictatorship. The dictatorship fell in the Carnation Revolution of April 1974.

In Brazil, in the early 1980s, Sócrates was key to establishing the ‘Corinthians Democracy’ movement at the São Paulo-based club. Corinthians players voted on everything – from where they stayed to how often they stopped for a break on the coach to matches. As the Brazilian dictatorship thawed, they wore shirts encouraging fans to vote, which led to a huge turnout. Corinthians were key to giving the Brazilian public the confidence to vote, something that had been denied to Brazilians for almost a generation.


Football and politics will always mix

When a footballer makes a comment that a politician doesn’t like, you will often hear the sneer, “stick to football!” There’s a whiff of snobbery and classism about it. Politics affects us all, and I wish more British people took an interest in it.  

The risks footballers like Neri and others took to stand up for their principles under the Mussolini regime were greater than any sporting pundit in the UK will face in 2023. Still, Gary Lineker is just the latest footballing figurehead to ruffle a major government over policies he disagrees with on principle.

The BBC may have only succeeded in shining the spotlight of scrutiny on itself during the Lineker affair. While football in England is not as political as in other countries, like Italy, Spain or Germany, this episode certainly shows it’s not far from the surface.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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