For a program that was only supposed to be about goals, Match of the Day is now about something else entirely – not least the future of the programme, the BBC and football’s role in politics.
And Ian Wright quickly followed the news of the departures of Gary Lineker, and then Alan Shearer, announcing that they would not be available on Saturday in solidarity. You broke the tax. Something had to be offered, especially with how politicized the sport had become.
This is a new era, and the BBC and its flagship football program will have to adapt to it and think about it for real.
There is great irony in the fact that this entire episode could initially have been seen as a case of football being used to distract crowds, in the way the sport has been repeatedly politically criticized. A story that began with a disgraceful immigration bill being used exemplarily and cynically by a Tory government to devolve a country somehow falling apart into a mass discussion about a tweet from a football announcer. That was amazing, and it seemed another example of a country losing perspective… until now.
As has been happening with the game more recently, its truly national role means that it not only reflects society, but has now forced the country to look at itself afresh – and above all the national broadcaster’s approach to coverage.
This is how the game has always been, far from being a distraction, a means of political self-expression.
It’s arguably fitting if not inevitable that Lineker brought this up because, long before Twitter, he was a broadcaster willing to tackle big issues. He helped propel broadcasting into a new era, and it is to his credit that he is now better known as one of England’s greatest strikers. This approach was actively embraced by Wright, who was a great proponent of using football for the greater good.
This is the world in which a modern footballer like Marcus Rashford can be one of the biggest problems for the government.
However, Match of the Day and other related programs is an area that has struggled to get back on its feet.
There are of course side discussions to be had about the exact wording of Lineker’s tweet, whether independent contractors should be subject to the same guidelines as employees and debate about the nature of those guidelines, but that is… side discussions.
It is now about something much bigger, and as far as football is concerned, the place of its flagship programme.
This brand – one of sports’ strongest – has now been blown away by a short-sighted approach.
Another irony of this is that, despite the politicization of the sport and some of its major broadcasters, Match of the Day in general has sought to avoid this.
We are in a new world of football where nation-states with problematic human rights records use and control the sport, but far from any kind of scrutiny on it, it is celebrated through it.
The issue is that these things cannot go on indefinitely. In the end there must be a break.
That’s what happened here with Lineker and now by extension today’s game.
A short-sighted and compromise solution that was never fully formulated and ultimately not rooted in reality.
This is not for Match of the Day, not for the BBC and certainly not for the football fan or casual viewer.
It is more like trying to avoid the truth and the truth than to face it.
That’s where we’re at now with this Lineker story and making the reality going forward for Match of the Day – and really, the entire BBC football output – very uncertain.
Any influential figure like Wright pulling out in solidarity will cause more waves.
What would a presenter presenting Match of the Day look like this weekend? How can she discuss anything credibly?
Will it be withdrawn?
This also relates to the issue of trust.
This is where the game is in the year 2023.
It is political in nature and has duly raised a story that has transcended football – but more importantly that it may change the way we see it.
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