What’s the shortest conversation you can have in a pub? Answer: Name all the good football pundits. Ex-pros snag these gigs ostensibly because their experience playing at a high-level gives them insights that the rest of us simple cannot identify. But I never had to kick a football at any level to feel there are more penetrating statements than “Didier Drogba is unplayable” and “You’ve always got a chance if you’ve got pace.” Switching on BT Sport at Saturday lunchtime to bare witness to the vapid punditry of Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, and Peter Crouch, three of the most famous recently retired English footballers, it’s a fair assumption that celebrity might be the most important factor in the hiring process.
Which brings us to Gary Neville, an extremely famous ex-footballer having won eight Premier League titles. Here’s the thing about Gary Neville: he is a damn good football pundit. I remember a segment on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football where he outlined how Roberto Martinez’s Everton would shift from a back four to a back three when their keeper had the ball, a fascinating tactical flourish that dumbfounded the opposition. Neville joined Sky Sports in 2011, a time when the broadcaster desperately needed fresh blood to replace disgraced dinosaurs Richard Keys and Andy Gray, and he stood on the shoulders of those who’d used flashy screens and other visual trickery to break down the minutiae of the game in fascinating ways. I despised Gary Neville the player—his celebration in front of Liverpool fans was an unforgivable transgression—so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself rating Gary Neville the media figure.
Being good at his job quickly made him the most influential pundit in England. Now, Neville attempts to leverage that role into the more broader realm of political and social commentary. He appears to want to present as socially progressive and enlightened. Thing is, exhibiting football intelligence and an interest in politics shouldn’t trick us until believing he has political intelligence. Because when it comes to ideology, Gary Neville is about as consistent as a Norwich City Premier League campaign.
He’s often characterized online as a do-gooder leftie for regularly criticizing the Conservative Party and showing flashes of egalitarian thinking, but I’d classify Neville as a centrist liberal with an odd penchant for voodoo economics. His own words: “I’m not a socialist, I’m a capitalist. I believe in entrepreneurialism. I believe in companies making profit. I believe in lower taxes. And I also believe that distribution of profit should be spread amongst us.”
This sounds very much like an endorsement of Liz Truss’s doomed attempt to fire volts into the corpse of Thatcher’s trickle-down economics, the theory that tax breaks for the wealthy will eventually see money flow down to everyone else. It was a heel turn from the man who previously supported Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, bizarrely delivered to camera as part of a self-recorded clip intended to explain why he supported the party. No wonder The Spectator, aka the Conservative Party’s unofficial in-house magazine, was left to wonder if Neville is actually a Tory.
Jokes aside, Neville is less a Thatcherite and more closely aligned with Keir Starmer, whose vision for the party tempted him into join Labour. But being ideologically in-tune with the leader of the political party he’s a member of does not make him ideologically consistent. Because Starmer himself has almost no identifiable politics after abandoning every pledge he made to win the leadership, using Thor-like strength to hammer his principles into the form of ‘Conservatism, but with respectability.’ He perfectly fits Neville’s seeming thirst for Tory policies, but enacted by supposedly nicer people.
Neville’s apparent belief that capitalism can be tweaked and refined to make it work for more people seems a Starmer-like gambit to defy reality and keep everyone sweet. It’s the same penchant for talking out the side of his neck that can see Neville in a television studio advocating that Premier League managers get time in their jobs while presiding over a revolving door of managerial hires and firings at the club he co-owns, Salford City.
These, um, ‘Nevillomics,’ of course, collapse under the mildest scrutiny. On a pre-World Cup trip to Qatar, it was painful watching him trying to present a hotel manager with an argument for egalitarian capitalism in a low-regulated industry to increase workers wages and be swatted back with ease. Let the penny drop, Gary, I beg.
Ah yes, the ongoing FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, an event I don’t have to tell you has been trenchantly criticized for its host’s record in denying rights to migrant workers, women, and LGBTQ+ people. Neville has been relentlessly skewered recently for having presented himself as a supporter of liberation in the country, yet opting to take Qatari money to offer his punditry on beIN sport, a state-owned network. In a well-circulated clip from his recent appearance on Have I Got News For You, Ian Hislop found him easy prey.
“My view always,” said Neville from the presenter’s chair, “has been that you either highlight the issues and challenges in these countries and speak about them, or you basically don’t say anything and stay back home and don’t go. And I think we should challenge them.”
It was an off-the-shelf response and Hislop wasn’t buying it. “The other option is you stay at home and highlight the abuses. You don’t have to take the Qataris’ money. It’s just not a very good defence.”
The veteran comedian was correct, and Neville had no retort. But Gary has always been feeble on sportswashing. His long-held view had been that football should welcome international money, even if its from the coffers of nation states brazenly attempting to sportswash their image, use clubs as an instrument of foreign policy, and exercise a form of soft power on foreign soil.
That is, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent ousting of oligarch Roman Abramovich from Chelsea for alleged ties to the Kremlin. “I don’t think the Premier League can continue to bury their heads in the sand,” he said on Sky News’s Beth Rigby Interviews shortly after war began and the UK government’s subsequent freezing of Abramovich’s assets. “I think I’ve always felt the sport should rise above politics and even international crisis. However, I think I’m wrong.”
He continued, “I’ve always welcomed international money into Premier League football. I've always felt that we should welcome Saudi Arabia money, the UAE money, the Russian money, and that we should try—through football, through sport—[to] create what would be a better collaborative working relationship, improve conditions for the populations of these countries, which, in large part they do suffer and they don’t always have the freedom and the democracies and choices that we have. However, I have to say that's been tested enormously in this last few weeks in what has happened with Chelsea, with Abramovich, with the Ukraine war, the connections between Abramovich and Putin.”
As uncomfortable as I was that it took the plight of mostly white Europeans to sway Neville, I was happy he was finally on the anti-sportwashing team. Moreover, it came at a time when the British government showed it could wield power over football to oust owners, laying waste to the argument that when it came to welcoming money with a certain agenda, the horse had bolted. But like the reign of Biggie’s adversaries, Neville’s period of erudition has been short like leprechauns, dissolving away for old arguments he so weakly rehashed on Have I Got News For You.
It culminating in him sitting in a beIN studio on Sunday night next to the less-than-noble trio or Keys, Gray, and John Terry. Neville cut a pathetic figure, every bit as tarnished as the recent Tory Prime Ministers he has professed to dislike, his profile making him a useful patsy. “The workers who built these stadiums do need thanking and honoring in the right way,” said Neville, no immediate mention of the allegations of migrant labour abuse, poor pay, and excess deaths. “In football we should also challenge and scrutinize the things that go on in every country that is playing, including ours and including Qatar,” he added meekly.
Neville has since been generously handed the chance to defend himself on ITV, delivering a bizarre monologue that veered from asserting that, of course, he “can’t stand” human rights abuses, to strawman arguments about the sporting world’s obligation to allow international events in the Middle East (no serious person has ever argued against this) and King Charles’s acceptance of charity donations from Qatari politicians. As a defense to what exactly was unclear—Neville didn’t offer a response to how being paid by Qatar could inevitably muzzle him.
It’s reasonable to assume Neville is being paid handsomely by beIN. It’s also reasonable to assume that low taxation wouldn’t be terrible thing for a man with the kind of business portfolio that he boasts. So if there is a consistent thread to his politics, maybe it’s that as much as he wants to convince you otherwise, Gary Neville is for anything that’s good for Gary Neville.
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