The Guardian: They say sports and politics make uneasy bedfellows, and Theresa May will no doubt now agree. At the start of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, the British prime minister was ambushed by her Belgian counterpart, Charles Michel, who presented her with a Belgium football team top ahead of the England v Belgium World Cup game.
May held up the Red Devils’ strip, before realising that doing so might be considered a PR gaffe. She attempted to swiftly stash it away only for fellow leaders gathered around her to point to the TV monitors showing her reaction live to a packed hall of reporters outside the leaders’ meeting room.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, appeared particularly amused by the jape.
The shirt – unfurled by Michel from a gift box – had 10 on the back, perhaps a nod to May’s Downing Street home, or Belgium’s finest player, Eden Hazard. To her credit, the prime minister appeared to take the incident in good spirit, although she is known to be more of a cricket fan, with a fondness for the slow but steady batting of Geoffrey Boycott.
Michel went on to pass around Belgian football scarves to some of the other EU leaders. The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who admitted he would be cheering on Belgium in their tie with England, happily posed with one, as did Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister. The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, beamed as he was handed a scarf, with the match seemingly taking on some symbolic value at a crunch time in the Brexit negotiations.
The prime minister later gave Michel a replica England shirt at a dinner where she addressed the other 27 leaders on her plans for the relationship after Brexit. On handing him the top, May told the Belgian premier: “The equalizer.” She also brought souvenir T-shirts for his two children, with the flags of the two footballing nations on the front, and the date of the tie. A UK government source said: “The Belgian prime minister obviously decided that he needed to get in ahead of the first whistle.”
As for support for the England team, there wasn’t much on show at the summit. However, Varadkar later pointed out that a loss for England could, due to the vagaries of the group stage, lead to an easier path for Gareth Southgate’s team to an unlikely second World Cup victory, by avoiding an early match with Brazil. “It could be a win-win situation,” Varadkar told reporters of his decision to back the Belgians.
The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who was also at the summit, tweeted of Varadkar’s comments: “This tells us all we need to know. He really is the yes-man of Europe.”