LONDON: David Beckham and Ian Botham may be retired, but their competitive spirit has not deserted them as they battle it out on opposite sides of Britain's heated EU referendum debate.
Beckham, once the darling of football terraces worldwide, has declared himself for the “Remain” camp, while ageing cricket legend Botham has come out for “Leave”.
Beckham, who also played in France, Spain and Italy during his stellar career, said the remarkable Manchester United team built by manager Sir Alex Ferguson was more successful because of the eclectic mix of Europeans who contributed to its triumphs.
“We were a better and more successful team because of a Danish goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, the leadership of an Irishman Roy Keane and the skill of a Frenchman in Eric Cantona,” said the 41-year-old on Tuesday in a post on Instagram.
Botham, never one for subtlety either as a player or subsequently as a pundit, said he had tired of the number of foreigners entering Britain.
“The people coming into our country, they don't seem to have to come over with a job, any qualifications, just turn up,” the 60-year-old nicknamed 'Beefy' said at a Vote Leave event with Boris Johnson in May.
“I think it will get cluttered. I would actually start thinking, 'hang on a minute, we've got enough people in this country',” said the former all-rounder, whose exploits in winning the Ashes in 1981 remain one of England's greatest sporting achievements.
Beckham's former Manchester United team-mate Rio Ferdinand followed him on Tuesday, declaring for Remain.
Ferdinand, capped 81 times, said it would be the first time he has ever voted – aged 37.
“I think all the focus on immigration has been a real shame,” wrote Ferdinand in London's Evening Standard newspaper.
“I don't want Britain to become an angry and mean-spirited country. I think there's a danger that, if Leave wins, it'll be an endorsement of the idea that it's OK to blame all our problems on foreigners.
“The England football team used to do that. And it didn't help us play any better.
“Europeans make a really important contribution to our country, and most of our problems are actually home-grown,” Ferdinand said.
‘A precarious place’
Reflecting the divide within the country which has seen families split over how to vote, Ferdinand's former England central defensive partner Sol Campbell declared for “Leave”.
England legend John Barnes, meanwhile, came out for “Remain” after justice minister Michael Gove previously named him as part of the “Leave” camp celebrity lineup.
Barnes said his comments about a Brexit vote being good for English footballers had been “misinterpreted” by Gove as an endorsement for leaving the EU, but that he in fact supported remaining part of the bloc.
More practically, a Brexit would impact negatively on how Europe shares intelligence on hooliganism, money laundering and people trafficking, Conservative lawmaker Damian Collins said.
“If you were a corrupt sports official you would want the UK to leave the EU,” said Collins, who is an influential member of the British parliament's culture, media and sports committee.
“I say that because what they don't want is countries working together to improve governance standards across the EU and law enforcement agencies sharing intelligence and information.
“That has made them more effective, as they have shown in the past couple of years with regard to FIFA and the IAAF.
“All sorts of practical things that are being created through the EU, if we came out we would have to renegotiate all those with individual states.
“If Sepp Blatter (disgraced former president of FIFA) had a vote, he'd be voting to leave.”
Horse trainer John Gosden – who trains mounts for owners ranging from Qatari sheikhs to Lady Bamford, wife of leading pro-Brexit businessman Anthony Bamford – said a vote to leave would have severe consequences, and not just for the 'Sport of Kings'.
“A vote to leave would act as a catalyst for the disintegration of the EU,” said the 65-year-old Cambridge University economics graduate and two-time Epsom Derby winning trainer.
“In truth it would be a precarious place for all of us to be.”