• Well Done Michael He's 13

Marcus Rashford and the Potential for a Golden Age of Football

Football has a divisive reputation. On the one hand, you have the diehard fans whose weeks revolve around matches, whose friendships are made and lost through deep debates about players and controversial decisions and whose tourism is dictated by the away fixture list. These are the people who fell in love the first time they heard a football bouncing back off a wall. On the other hand, there is a healthy cohort of people who think the money in the professional game is offensive and that footballers are largely uneducated showboaters. Why exactly, many of these people don’t bat an eyelid at Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao splitting a 100m pound purse for 36 minutes of shadow boxing, or George Clooney pocketing millions for looking smug in a Nespresso ad, is unclear. Between these extremes you have the casual fans and the people who simply could not care less. Like everything that is divisive, it’s likely that people from each group is right and wrong in some way. What is certain, is that football attracts numbers that pretty much every other sport or public figure in Britain can only dream of. It is estimated that 70% of the UK population watched some Premier League football in 2018/2019. Crystal Palace vs Bournemouth could draw higher viewing figures than any non-emergency political statement or press conference, even if Dominic Cummings were to return to the garden of number 10 to explain footage that shows him abseiling Barnard Castle.

Football has many flaws. It is lauded as the national sport, but also receives considerable unfair criticism. More than any sport, its fanbase encompasses a broad representation of the population. At any Premier League ground each weekend, you will find considerable representation from white and BAME fans, as well as a huge mix of nationalities.

The price of tickets unfortunately, can be prohibitive for many, but even those who don’t go to games turn out in large numbers in pubs and living rooms all over the land. For all the attention that football’s troubles receive, there are few places where such enormous numbers of people, from such diverse backgrounds can gather, in almost always peaceful environments, despite the high emotions involved. The same can be said of Sunday morning leagues in every town and city. For all the ease with which the sport is criticised, we rarely hear complaints about the wealth of the athletes or lack of diversity in the crowd at Wimbledon each summer, or about Formula 1’s world of excess. While it might be fair to point to historic and cultural reasons for certain sports attracting certain fans, it is unfair to scoff at the ‘working class’ sport of football, while dipping strawberries in cream before politely applauding another Federer volley.

Football players and football fans have become the easy target of many, but managed correctly, the game could now enter a new era, blazing a trail for the rest of society. How much better were the gatherings of thousands from every background in Britain’s towns and cities, watching the run to the World Cup semi-final in 2018, than the pictures of sparring groups around statues in recent weeks. Without diminishing the need for peaceful protesting on important issues, football can be a brilliantly unifying force, at a time when many are quick to highlight division.

An estimated 1.3 million children in England will be able to claim free school meal vouchers during the holidays, after a campaign by Manchester United and England star Marcus Rashford.

As the world tiptoes out of lockdown, fresh with Coronavirus paranoia and the heightening discussion about race and issues of equality that are yet to be rectified, football has found itself at the forefront of the discussion in many households, before it has even returned to our screens. This is largely due to the campaigning of young Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford, whose high-profile work put pressure on Boris Johnson to U-turn on his decision regarding the provision of meals to children. Rashford has spoken passionately and plainly about his own childhood and why this means so much to him. As far back as last November, Rashford was actively involved with the ‘In the box’ campaign, helping homeless shelters around Manchester. Rashford’s work has helped FareShare feed over three million vulnerable people, and raise over 20 million pounds for children’s charities. He also received praise during lockdown for learning sign language to help judge a competition at a local school. Clubmate Juan Mata has set up the Common Goal movement, that encourages players to donate at least 1% of their income to football charities around the world. These are two high profile examples of the countless acts of selflessness that those in the football world see regularly, from the top to grassroots level where amateur coaches act as mentors to young and homeless groups, or a sense of community is achieved by the volunteer who lines the local pitch.

The timing of Rashford’s emergence as the face of English football could not be better. It feels like no time since there was such focus on the negative attention Raheem Sterling was getting from some parts of the British press, compared to how a white counterpart might be treated. The voices of Sterling, Rashford and other black players in recent months have been sincere and credible, and will make it harder for footballers to be reported as one-dimensional tropes, allowing them the opportunity to be considered as genuinely worthy role models for children. They now have the platform and credibility to kick on and truly lend a voice to social problems.

Looking at Rashford’s achievements, imagine the scope that the rest of the Premier League has to engage meaningfully in issues of race, sexual orientation, homelessness, poverty and violence and gang culture among young people.

It would be naïve to think that football will suddenly become a perfect example for the rest of society. The game still harbours its own problems, for example, where race and sexuality are concerned. It would however, also be naïve to diminish the role it can play. One look on social media provides an insight to the sense of community in the football world. One gets a sense that the match going fans have never been more ready to eradicate the toxic factions of football’s support and to speak openly about its problems. The days of being afraid to call somebody out are hopefully coming to an end, with people more certain than ever that the person shouting racist or homophobic abuse is in the minority. Away from screens and anonymous profiles, the vile language often seen online will surely make up an even smaller minority than it already does. This does not, and should not, have to extend to censoring every swear word or display of anger and frustration at a football ground. The heat of the moment intensity the game allows is part of its appeal. However, those sowing division in our amateur games, pubs and grounds will be more isolated than ever.

It would be incredible, and right now feels possible, to be on the cusp of a new golden age for football. Where individuality among the fans and amateur players at every age group is supported and encouraged as much as creativity is on the pitch. Where amateur clubs and fan groups are places of support. Where the contingent of louts that make up travelling fans are pushed further to the fringes. Where those looking for an outlet for their anger and violence no longer find one in the football world. Think of the small but truly damaging number of English fans throwing piss and bicycles off Amsterdam bridges. Think of the masses who feel compelled to wear their football shirts and carry football flags to far-right demonstrations, though the link between the game and their ideology appears impossible to make. There is an opportunity for football fans to travel abroad in good spirit, to mingle with locals and even rival fans, setting a standard of goodwill for the rest of the world, much like the Irish fans at Euro 2016 did, earning the freedom of the city of Paris. There was drinking, there was chanting and there was a whole lot of chaos, but it never once appeared to have a sinister underbelly.

Most people who have ever been to an international tournament can easily imagine this world. Where the supporters of many nations mix in the streets and bars, swapping scarves and shirts and chants. Imagine that spirit captured in our weekly interactions on the pitches and in the stadiums. Compared to this summer of isolation and discontent, how good could next summer be? When, in a world of lifted lockdowns, fans from every nation on the continent rejoice in travel again, celebrating UEFA’s multi-country European Championships. It would be a fitting reunion for countries ravaged by pandemic. Combine this with the new, deeper appreciation lockdown has taught lovers of the game, and next year’s tournament could be one for the ages. Where diversity and equality are not something fought for and fought over, rather just given an arena to flourish. It was Rashford who said it best when celebrating the news of the government U-turn. ‘Just look at what we can do when we come together.’ Football fans, lead on.

Neil Tully

Football Writer

Well Done Michael He's 13.

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