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Keep politics out of sport? Bit late for that.

 To me, a child of the eighties, the last few days have been extraordinary.

When I was growing up, sportspeople tended to keep their political opinions to themselves, if they expressed anything, it might have been some vague admiration for Margaret Thatcher, but that was the end of it. Sport and politics were, for the most part, separate, at least as far as the players were concerned. Even the rebel cricketers who went on tours of apartheid South Africa were, as far as they were concerned, only doing it for the money (that it was a political act in and of itself never seemed to enter the discourse).

This was helped by having, in Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, an administration which abhorred football. This was the era of Heysel and Hillsborough, of regular rucks on the terraces and in train stations, the hooligan was king, football was something to be kept at arms length.

(When politics did enter sport, it was big, scary Cold War politics, it was the US boycotting the Moscow Olympics, and the Russians responding in kind in LA, but, as with the cricket tours, and the banning of South Africa, all this took place way above the actual athletes pay grade.)

The idea then that a footballer would voice criticism of the government wasn't so much unthinkable as unreal, this was a reality in which such a thing simply wouldn't, couldn't occur. Our sportspeople were there to fail gloriously, occasionally win stuff, and wrap themselves in the flag when they did.

It would seem that the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain are still living in that world, and they're having a rude awakening.

We all know the background behind the England team, and Johnson and Patel refusing to condemn those booing them. And we've all seen the scrambling to jump on the bandwagon when the team started to do well, Johnson with an England shirt over his shirt and tie, Patel still with the creases on hers, Sunak with the price tag still on his, an unedifying, inauthentic attempt to bathe in a bit of reflected glory (Johnson, famously, when asked who his favourite team was, replied "all the London ones"). When the players became the subject of racist abuse they had a quick check to to see which way the wind was blowing, and then condemned the racism.

Tyrone Mings wasn't having any of it, and said so, in an act which, to those of us reared on bland, anodyne soundbites about the lads sticking to their game plan and giving 110% was thrillingly transgressive. After a brief moment of shock, the right wing commentariat have rallied to attack him him, but they're finding that they're pretty heavily outnumbered.

Prior to this, the conservative MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, came under heavy fire for a whatsapp message to fellow MPS, saying the Marcus Rashford should clearly have stayed out of politics and stuck to football. She then recanted quickly with a classic non apology, saying she was just as disappointed with the result as everyone else. Yes, Natalie, and you're also disappointed that Rashford spent last summer making your boys look like mugs over free school meals, and you couldn't wait to stick the boot in.

The reason is this. Rashford, Mings, Saka, Sancho, are "just" footballers. These MPs can't conceive of them being anything else. That they are bright young men with a social conscience simply doesn't compute in Tory World. They're frightful oiks, what do they know? And, as they are finding out quickly, and to their cost, these footballers not only have minds of their own they have, in social media, a means to disseminate those thoughts quickly and to a far greater amount of people than any MP could dream of reaching.

The England team haven't forgotten the Tories throwing them under the bus at the start of the Euros. And the Tories have been badly wrongfooted by the way the public's taken this likeable, inclusive bunch of lads to their hearts. This isn't the surly England of the noughties and tens, where giant egos jostled and they never played as a team, this is a collective, not a bunch of individuals. This is an England team that it's easy to like against a Government that seems to go out of its way to pick fights with its own citizens, it's not a contest.

When the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, said we should keep politics out of sport, what he meant was we should keep politics he doesn't agree with out of sport (much as the Government is happy to have a Tory donor as the BBC chairman, but is fighting tooth and nail to stop Jess Brammar of the Huffington Post's appointment because "impartiality"). They're trying to have it both ways, and the players aren't playing. You love to see it.


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