Charlie Whelan: In exploiting football, politicians always lose

Most people would prefer it if politicians kept out of the World Cup media frenzy.

So far, only one political World Cup PR stunt has worked, and that came from the past master himself, Tony Blair. The Prime Minister’s appearance on 5 Live’s 6-0-6 phone-in could have been a disaster, but he cleverly promised to look into the ticket scam that denied hundreds of schoolchildren a seat at a World Cup game. Hey presto, a few days later, the kids were secured tickets for the England vs Ecuador match and the PM is a hero, even though it was the sports minister who did the business.

Blair’s next-door neighbour has not had such an easy time. Things reached rock bottom when Gordon Brown invited The Mail on Sunday into his flat to watch a match with him. It is nearly ten years since I organised a similar stunt. Number 10 wanted to show that the Chancellor and PM were really big buddies, so I had to ask the TV cameras in to film Gordon and Tony watching a game together. It didn’t work then and neither did Brown’s latest attempt to curry favour with the English. The sad thing is that he does genuinely support England, only now no one believes him.

Similarly, no one believes David Cameron supports football. Despite having said publicly he doesn’t like football, he couldn’t keep away from the game. Inevitably he took a hit, particularly from the Daily Mirror, which reprinted his anti-football quotes from Hansard.

In Scotland, ‘political football’ has taken on a new meaning.  When first minister Jack McConnell announced he would support ‘anyone but England’ he could never have realised what a mistake it would prove to be. The tourist industry was horrified, with Visit Scotland pointing out that the vast majority of visitors to the country were in fact English. Worse was to follow.

A six-year-old kid and disabled man were both beaten up for wearing England shirts, and McConnell was blamed. This might have gone unnoticed down south were it not for the matter being raised in Prime Minister’s Questions.

Now we had newspapers questioning the right of Scottish MPs to vote on English issues. McConnell had opened a hornet’s nest just because he was anxious to wrap himself up in the Saltire to counter the threat of the SNP.

People do not care a jot about politicians’ football allegiances. What they do care about is politicians using the beautiful game for their own ends. But so long as England remain in the tournament, stand by for more PR stunts and more politicians screwing up.

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