Amid reports that several England players are high-profile holdouts for the Covid-19 vaccine, football is staring down a reckoning as it tackles vaccine hesitancy ahead of a World Cup in Qatar which could ban unvaccinated players.
As global sport continues to emerge from its coronavirus slumber, the impact of the ongoing public health crisis is still being felt. The issue, which has commanded the attention of sports news desks for more than 18 months now, has traversed several different elements with each being more controversial than the last.
In the case of English football, it began with the Premier League season being suspended in the weeks after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic before resuming months later inside empty, cavernous stadiums.
As the months ticked along, fans were granted permission to trickle back into stadiums – so long as social distancing was at least tersely acknowledged.
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Then came the ‘vaccine passports’ debate, another issue which caused ructions in several football fanbases, existing simultaneously with another keenly-contested debate about race in football as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign received glowing endorsement from English football chiefs.
And as time has passed, it seems as though the only thing that English football and its fans can agree upon is that they don’t agree on anything.
Per reports this week, this uncertainty has bled from the terraces into dressing rooms. A wide-ranging investigation conducted by UK newspaper The Daily Mail this week suggested that numerous top Premier League clubs have experienced pushback from players when it comes to vaccination requirements – with several conspiracy theories said to be prevalent inside clubs.
Among them is the outlandish theory that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has inserted tracking chips into the vaccine so as to keep tabs on its recipients, as well as claims about it being bad for a person’s fertility and even that a course of over the counter vitamins is a more robust treatment for Covid-19 compared to several of the vaccines which have received full clearance from public health watchdogs.
Furthermore, it is believed that the reluctance from senior players is having a significant influence on younger, less experienced players.
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But like everything else, actions have consequences. It was reported in The Sun on Saturday that five England squad members remain unvaccinated, with three of those thought to be senior players who starred during Gareth Southgate’s team’s run to the Euro 2020 final this summer – but the vaccination situation within the England camp could hamper their chances at next year’s Qatar World Cup.
England will secure qualification to the tournament with wins against Andorra and Hungary this month, but with Qatari organizers declaring that unvaccinated players will not be permitted to enter the country.
Thus, these England players face a dilemma: get vaccinated, or kiss your international career goodbye.
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Gareth Southgate’s role in this scenario will be an interesting one too, given that he fronted a high-profile vaccination campaign in recent weeks and is known to be fully on-board with the vaccination drive and even admitted that he had received full-voiced abuse from sections of England fans for his vaccine endorsement.
Dispensations have already been handed out to the unnamed, unvaxxed England squad members who are thought to have been granted permission to train alongside their vaccinated peers in a move predicted to provoke dissent within the ranks.
However, with more than a year before the next World Cup kicks off it must be acknowledged that this tabloid talk could see several more developments before it truly impacts Southgate’s plans – but with England’s qualification almost assured, it begs the question if the England boss will begin his year-long preparation for the tournament with players he fears won’t be available to him in Qatar?
The flip-side of that particular coin is should England holdouts be compelled to take a vaccine they don’t want in order to continue their international career, further blurring the line between ‘voluntary’ and ‘mandatory’?
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Whichever way you slice this, there is no easy and obvious quick fix which can be neatly tied into a bow and presented to the public with a rose-tinted publicity campaign before we enter territory of players being deemed “medically unavailable” for selection.
English football is facing a reckoning between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, and the question now seems to be whether its the players, the FA, or the organizers of the Qatar World Cup, who blink first.