Breaking news from Reykjavik: young people get bored and do silly things. Hold the front page, back page and indeed every page in between.
The world may have shifted on its axis. Global sport may be menaced by the continuing vicissitudes of a viral bat-plague. But it seems some things remain reassuringly the same.
The news that a pair of England footballers, aged 18 and 20, have broken biosecure protocol to fraternise with locals will now be processed through the familiar cycle of crime and punishment. No doubt this will be leavened by a powerful dose of moral panic, pearl-clutching and fearless pursuit of the most titillating details.
Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood had already been removed from England’s party for the trip to Denmark by the time Gareth Southgate faced the media on Monday afternoon. The Football Association will exact the appropriate punishment for breaking the guidelines. Apologies will be offered, and future prospects prejudiced by an infuriating lack of professionalism.
Part one of this evolving saga is a straight-up quarantine story. On this front Foden and Greenwood are not just bang to rights, but guilty of idiocy in the extreme. Breaking the rules threatened not just the health of the whole England group, but potentially the entire ruinously expensive international trip.
From a footballing angle there is significant collateral damage. Everything England’s manager does now, from lukewarm initial condemnation, to future selections, to how he speaks about this unprecedented event – hotel rooms, Snapchat, global health pandemic: thoughts Gareth? – will be picked over for signs of weakness.
Plus these are not disposable cast members. Foden and Greenwood are seriously talented young players, and long-term FA investments. The team is weakened by their absence. The time required to bed them in is seriously depleted. England have an impossibly congested schedule from here. Barring some kind of unlikely dentist-chair-style team bonding bonus, England are now just a little bit less likely to succeed at the Euros next year; and more immediately, the key double-header against Belgium.
Part One is clear enough then. Both players will now owe their teammates a debt that can only be repaid on the pitch. The case against, such as it is, rests there.
Which brings us on, with a sigh, to Part Two. When it comes to the exact nature of the offence here, it is probably worth taking a breath. Footballers. Hotel rooms. Nudges, winks and faux moral outrage. Are we really going to do this?
There are so many familiar tropes here – spoiled princelings, teens gone wild, old values pushed aside like an outdated combine harvester – that it will be tempting for some to reach for the full set-list of moral fury, to see only a dose of old‑fashioned football yobbery.
It is a temptation that should be resisted. In reality the private details here, the exact nature of who may have been doing what with whom, are the kind of thing that has tended to attract a rather overheated, not to mention intrusive and unhealthy degree of interest.
Had Greenwood and Foden attended a local pop-up theatre group or gone out for a frothy cortado and a game of chess, it seems likely interest in this breach of health regulations would be significantly scaled back.
But of course, they didn’t. The human interest part, the basic fact of male-female company on tour, will colour exactly how and in what tones these footballers are judged. And it is here that another kind of veil should be erected.
It seems a good moment to ask about how appropriate this kind of thing is these days. At a time when there is a wider interest in trying to respect the personal space, acts and choices of young people, there is something slightly creepy in football’s historical interest in the private and sex lives of young athletes and those they happen to meet along the way.
Neither Foden nor Greenwood is running for public office on a celibacy ticket. Neither has, to date, preached to the world on the moral fragility of others. These are simply young men away from home wanting to do the things young men have always wanted to do away from home, while ignoring clear instructions to the contrary and finding themselves caught in the act (as many others, we can be sure, have not been).
The final point worth making here is mitigation, or indeed a little wider context. While it is right that punishment is handed down, it would be particularly tone deaf to do so in a tone of high moral censure. Just take a look outside. The news from Reykjavik emerged on the same day government figures suggested a notable surge in Covid‑19 infections among young people.
The suggestion is the strain of dutifully sequestering themselves away has begun to show. Young people are going out. Some young people are struggling with rules designed, on the whole, to protect older people. At the very least, young people have had to work harder at this, because everything in their nature tells them to go outside, congregate, make mistakes and generally do all the things younger people have always done.
And yes, this process applies equally to wealthy and famous young people; not to mention highly-pressurised athletes whose lives are not always as gloriously freewheeling as they might look from the outside.
For now punishment will be dispensed and apologies offered up. This is a wretched incident all round, and a serious breach of team rules that must not be repeated. But it is no more than that. With any luck, in time, it will end up just a footnote in the England careers of both men.