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Playmaker

Football’s vaccine hesitancy problem

Football’s vaccine hesitancy problem

A lot of professional footballers are wary of getting the Covid vaccine. What’s their problem? And how much of a problem is it for football?


Transcript

Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker.

One story, every day to make sense of the world of football.

Today, just what will it take for football to win the fight against vaccine hesitancy in its own ranks?

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“It felt worse than razor blades. It was like someone had just shut my throat off. Like someone had jammed something down my throat so I couldn’t do anything.

“I was so sore. It felt like I was suffocating. It was horrible. In and around my chest it was getting tighter. The longer it went on the more I started to think, ‘I really need some help.’”

That’s what the Newcastle United goalkeeper Karl Darlow said to The Times’ Martin Hardy, about the excruciating pain he suffered at the hands of Covid-19, after he caught it in mid-July. 

Karl Darlow lost two stone in five days in hospital battling the virus. He said he could feel muscle disappearing from his arms. 

Now, he’s on a quest to encourage people who haven’t had the vaccine to get it.

And he knows that that journey starts in his own changing room.

You see, football is currently in a battle not just against Covid, but against vaccine hesitancy, too.

Xhaka’s reaction there not good, not good at all as he’s virtually jeered off from his own fans…”

Sky Sports Football

Granit Xhaka has had a topsy-turvy time in England since he signed for Arsenal in 2016. 

He’s been booed off by his own fans, won the FA Cup with them twice, been sent off four times – including against Manchester City last month when his team was 2-0 down in the first half… you get the idea. 

He is, for a lot of fans, let’s say… difficult to like.

Last week, Granit Xhaka tested positive for Covid-19 while he was on international duty, and ruled him out of Switzerland’s game against Greece. It was then announced that he’d refused the vaccine, and the Swiss FA said that “it’s a personal decision of each player – just like any other person in Switzerland.”

In July, Everton midfielder Fabian Delph shared an anti-vaccine post on his Instagram Story – the post said: “It’s now ‘a conspiracy theory’ (in inverted commas) to believe that the immune system is capable of doing the job it was designed to do”. 

Which brings me back to Karl Darlow, and Newcastle United. 

Newcastle’s manager Steve Bruce said last month that “a lot” of his players have not been vaccinated, and claimed it was “conspiracy theories” that are convincing players not to get jabbed.

And this isn’t only a Newcastle story – Ole Gunnar Solskjær said he’s struggled to convince some players at Manchester United to get the vaccine, and Middlesbrough manager Neil Warnock said “the majority” of his squad had, as yet, not been jabbed. 

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In a way, it’s not only a story about football. Men under the age of 30 are among the most vaccine hesitant in the UK – around 8 per cent are wary of getting jabbed, according to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics. 

So it perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that footballers – young, fit, males – coupled up with misinformation surrounding the vaccine, that take-up seems lower amongst footballers than the wider population.

It’s a problem that won’t go away, either. In the coming months players from the UK will be required to travel around Europe as the Champions League kicks off. When vaccination becomes a requirement of travel, clubs will be left in a precarious position if some of their players aren’t fully vaccinated.

There’s a squad togetherness dimension to it, too. If a player catches Covid and is exposed to an unvaccinated team-mate, both of those players would be ruled out for games due to isolation rules – leaving their squad down two players rather than just one. 

This has already happened at League Two side Newport County, who were without seven players last weekend – four with Covid itself, and three who had to isolate as they hadn’t been fully vaccinated. Manager Michael Flynn said before the game that: “If they are happy doing that then it’s not going to help them going forward. I am not happy with that but that’s my opinion and I’ve got to let players make their own decisions.”

It can hardly be good for squad harmony, but managers have parroted the same phrase over the past few weeks: ‘It’s their decision.’

Covid-19 can completely wipe out fit, young footballers, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

But through his pain, maybe Karl Darlow’s experience in recent weeks will be a lesson to his peers in the game.

Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Tom Kinsella.