The results of a YouGov survey to find the “most admired” people on Earth were published this week. Top of the men’s list is Barack Obama, the first black US president (in the world of most admired, the sexes are bashfully separated). In second is Bill Gates, donor of about $50bn to charity. But the real big mover is (of course) Cristiano Ronaldo, who ends 2021 breathing down the neck of genocidal party dictator Xi Jinping for the title of third most-admired man on the planet.

To a cynic this might look like strange company. Below Ronaldo on the global admiration list are activists, philanthropists, hyper-visible despots, fancy-hatted emissaries of God’s word on Earth.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, has really good muscle definition. His goals-to-games ratio is first rate. He looks like a piece of living pop performance art called Sport Human No 3 or, depending on your outlook, like an exceptionally handsome robot ice-cream salesman from the year 2091. He clearly smells really nice. What’s not to admire?

But really the only value of this kind of stuff is to illustrate a familiar confusion of scale.Footballers have always existed at the polar opposites of this spectrum: gods and monsters, yobs and princelings, objects of fawning veneration versus agents of moral panic. Ronaldo as fourth most-admired man in the world feels like the flipside to another tide of public feeling this week, something much more serious, but rooted in the same basic category-confusion.

It is, of course, to do with Covid-19. As infections multiply and the fixture list dissolves at the edges, the idea has taken root that footballers in the professional men’s game have been playing fast and loose with vaccines. Footballers, we hear, lag behind in getting the jab. Footballers have let us down, falling prey to conspiracy theory, ignorance, notions of their own exceptionalism.

This has become accepted fact, fuel for a thundering opinion piece, a social media calling-out, for insinuations about the hive mind idiocies of wealthy working-class men. Footballers, who are disproportionately unvaccinated, should have their jab status coercively published. Footballers, who are disproportionately unvaccinated, should be deprived of their salaries when they miss games. Footballers, who are disproportionately unvaccinated, should be forced to pay the expenses of those who lose out due to cancellations.

Which is fine. Except, one simple fact undermines all of this. Footballers are not disproportionately unvaccinated. It can look like that if you dress it right. But in any sensible context it’s not actually true.

The reality is this: 68% of footballers had been double vaccinated up to the most recent stats including the Premier League. Look a bit deeper and guess what? Those numbers are the same for men aged 20-30 in the UK population as a whole. End result: footballers are not laggards, not a special case. They simply reflect the reality of everyone else out there. Perhaps you could even say footballers are doing better than the general population. In the non-football world a quarter of people in that age group are obese. Just under a fifth will have a pre-existing health problem. No footballers are obese. These are the fittest people in the country. The more selfish incentives to get a jab are dialled back.

Fans wait to have their Covid passes checked by officials before Liverpool’s game against Newcastle at Anfield.
Fans wait to have their Covid passes checked by officials before Liverpool’s game against Newcastle at Anfield. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

In this light, to achieve par vaccination with their peers around the country is a decent effort. It’s certainly not cause for hand-wringing, or a round of stop-these-monsters-now faux horror. So where does it come from? How is it this easy for a basic fact – footballers: just the same as other people – to be thrown away in the name of performative scolding?

As a footnote, it is of course necessary at times like these to show your own ideological papers. Why is this bloke spoiling a perfectly good divisive argument? What’s his agenda? For what it’s worth I am fully pro-vaccines – pro all the medicines – because I like not dying of disease. Juice me up. I’ll swallow whatever you’ve got. But then, I’ve spent 30 years drinking lager, smoking fags, gargling with Pot Noodle dust, furring my arteries with steroid-fed animal flesh. Never mind the toxic air, the industrial slurry, the micro plastics in your bones, it’s the tiny jab of well-meaning dilute medicine that’s going to get you, eh?

So what to take from all this? First, it might be good to stop hero-worshipping footballers. The corollary to this familiar species-rage – footballers as thugs, footballers as dunces, footballers as uppity manual workers – is the tendency to gush and coo and fawn over these people the rest of the time. This is not confined to football supporters, but the preserve of a certain kind of journalist whose work is essentially a series of applause emojis, a seduction by the idea that talent, wealth, styling and a beautifully lit social media feed confer some kind of cloudless inner grace on all issues from pandemic management to the balance of taxation, to all the other things you believe in. It is a very modern kind of idolatry. It will always lead to disappointment. Footballers: they’re just folk too.

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And finally football is good at telling us other things. Such as, taking a relentlessly polarised position on any issue is a bad idea.

Come to think of it, creating a coherent subset of people called “footballers” (sole shared attribute: good at kicking a ball) is pretty ludicrous in the first place.

Two things do seem certain. What this data tells us is that the footballer generation, people aged 20-30, are a little atomised and alienated, hostage to tides of confusing information. And that, through all this, the players have taken risks to entertain us, pushing bodies to their absolute aerobic capacity during a global lung and heart disease emergency.

Does that sound sensible? Is there any real understanding of the risks, long term? Not really! Perhaps it is even something – advisedly and within limits – to admire.