Gary Lineker Brexit battle with People’s Vote for a second referendum is brave move against the ‘stick to sports’ brigade

Gary Lineker is always told to stay out of politics, but kudos to the former England striker for putting his neck on the line for what he believes in

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 7:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2018, 10:30am

If you wondered whether famous sporting names carried any clout when it comes to their political opinions, just look at cricketing legend Imran Khan’s imminent crowning as prime minister of Pakistan.

The UK is far from having a Donald Trump-style celebrity leader, let alone a sporting figure in charge at No 10 Downing Street – over there, we just give Knighthoods to anyone who achieves anything of note with a bat or ball.

That makes Gary Lineker’s willingness to stick his neck out for what he believes in all the more commendable.

Former England striker Lineker, now host of the BBC’s Match of the Day, has been told over and again to stick to sports and stay out of politics every time he dares to venture an opinion about domestic or foreign affairs on Twitter.

Whether it be showing sympathy for the struggles faced by refugees, or questioning whether the UK’s departure from the EU is the right move for Britain, the 57-year-old is inundated with derogatory messages from right-wing trolls.

In the minds of this hateful mob, Lineker is betraying his country. No matter that the Vote Leave campaign has been fined and referred to the police after being charged with four counts of breaking electoral law, including legal spending limits.

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Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who spearheaded the Leave campaign, loves to talk about how much he loves his country, but do me a favour if you think England’s leading World Cup scorer with 48 international goals overall to his name isn’t patriotic.

The “celebrities should stay out of politics” line is one practised by the Trump administration, too. Fox News host Laura Ingraham told LeBron James he should “shut up and dribble” rather than give negative opinions on Trump.

Never mind that Trump, a former reality television star, is the biggest celebrity politician of them all.

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Like James, Lineker doesn’t mind fighting back. After Boris Johnson, another architect of the Leave campaign, tweeted how proud he was of England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals earlier this month, Lineker told the former foreign secretary to “bore off”.

“Here they come: politicians jumping on the football bandwagon when it suits them. We all know you don’t give a monkey’s about the sport until you want to bask in any reflective glory,” he tweeted.

Conservative politicians were all over Lineker, criticising the broadcaster of double standards. “When you keep out of jumping on political bandwagons we politicians will keep out of football. Deal?” Steve Double, St Austell and Newquay MP, tweeted in response to him.

But as Lineker replied to Double, they were missing his point – “if you don’t have any interest and jump on a bandwagon, it stinks”.

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Lineker can’t be accused on jumping on the politics bandwagon – he regularly gives his take to his 7.2 million followers on Twitter, whereas Johnson wanted to pull England out of the World Cup over the poisoning of two former Russian national son British soil.

It’s hard to find other high-profile British sportsmen or women who have so risked their reputation to defend or stand with Brexit.

Lineker’s fellow former England icon David Beckham believes “together as a people we are strong”, but hardly beats the drum as loudly or frequently.

As the BBC’s highest paid on-air talent with an annual salary of around £1.75 million (US$2.29 million, HK$18 million), Lineker is also in a vulnerable position, which makes his outspoken stance all the more admirable.

The BBC says Lineker is a freelance contributor and doesn’t work in politics or news sections, therefore is free to air his views publicly on this.

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But that didn’t stop The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, decrying Lineker as a “jug-eared leftie luvvie” in 2016 and calling for him to be sacked over his “migrant lies” amid public debate about the government’s treatment of child refugees from Calais.

“Why don’t you take in some refugees in your mansion?” was a familiar cry from Vote Leave trolls in his Twitter mentions at the time.

Lineker can probably expect some more hateful headlines in right-wing publications The Sun and The Daily Mail for his latest comments, announcing he is backing a campaign for a second Brexit referendum.

“Some things in life that, even for someone like me, are more important than football,” said Lineker, who has partnered with the People’s Vote group, which will hold rallies in British cities this summer, culminating in a march through central London on October 20 which they promise will be the “biggest Brexit protest yet”.

Prime minister Theresa May is due to strike a deal with Brussels around that time, and campaigners hope to pressure MPs into holding a parliamentary vote on any agreement.

May has consistently rejected the idea of holding a second Brexit referendum, but two years on from the first, little progress seems to have been made in planning for the UK’s divorce from the EU.

“I spent most of the last few weeks totally focused on a fantastic World Cup. But it was impossible to avoid what was happening in the Brexit debate back home.

“Now I’m back I find the whole thing more bewildering and worrying than ever. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, did anyone really vote for the mess we seem to be in, let alone the prospect of no deal with all the terrible consequences attached to that?”

Lineker prides himself on being principled – he gave his fee for appearing at the World Cup draw in Moscow last December to charity, having refused to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin and having worn an LGBT wristband in protest at Russia’s treatment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

That’s not to say Lineker is a saint. On the eve of the European referendum, he sent a tweet that read: “Whatever happens, Nigel Farage will always be a d**k.”

But Lineker, is not seeking more power, fame or money. He has enough of the latter two, and is only concerned with standing up for what he thinks is right, something which everyone should be free to pursue without people trying to ruin his life.

“The politicians seem unable to resolve the problem the people gave them in voting to Leave,” Lineker added.

“That is why I think there should be a People’s Vote on the final deal, and why I am sending best wishes and good luck to the campaigners who will be stepping up the pressure over the summer.”