From the 80s onwards footballers had a reputation for being spoilt, overpaid and irresponsible. But a new generation of star players are standing up for causes they believe in and using their influence to champion social progress
Of all the scapegoats in the Covid-19 pandemic, footballers were the most predictable. The health secretary Matt Hancock suggested they should “play their part” by taking pay cuts. MP Julian Knight, chair of the department for digital, culture, media and sport, condemned millionaire players taking full pay while non-playing staff were furloughed. It exposed “the moral vacuum at the centre” of English football, Knight said.
But, as many pointed out, singling out footballers rather than, say, city bankers or fat cat CEOs is a double standard. As football historian David Goldblatt puts it: “Hello class prejudice, with a bit of racism thrown in as well.”
Taking shots at well-paid footballers is nothing new. A massive increase in salaries coincided with the ‘golden age’ of tabloid newspapers, and from the 1980s to the early 2000s footballers were lambasted for everything from sex scandals to irresponsible extravagance. They were criticised, above all, for their salaries.
But signs abound that modern football (arguably unlike banking) is becoming more responsible. More than ever, players are using their platforms to champion social progress and tackling the stereotype of overpaid dribblers at the same time.
At the start of the pandemic, Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s captain, held a conference call with captains of all 20 Premier League clubs and coordinated a Covid-19 fund to which players could donate. In June, on the day Premier League matches resumed after lockdown, every player, referee and official took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
And on 1 September, Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United forward, announced the launch of a taskforce to tackle child food poverty, featuring executives from major UK supermarkets plus charities FareShare and the Food Foundation. The move was building on Rashford’s success earlier in the summer, when he forced the government to reverse a decision to axe food vouchers for the poorest families during the summer holiday period – something he is now trying to do again during the October half term.
In an open letter to MPs in June, the 22-year-old described how his own family had relied on the free meals, as well as on food banks, during his childhood. “The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked,” wrote Rashford, who has also raised more than £20m for FareShare. “This is not about politics; this is about humanity.”
A cynic might label such actions as elaborate PR stunts, but players standing up for what they believe in does not always sit comfortably with their employers. In December 2019, when midfielder Mesut Özil took aim at Muslim countries for their silence over the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China, his club Arsenal distanced itself.
“The content published is Özil’s personal opinion,” it said in a statement. “As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”
At the start it’s always about being a better player. Over time, you want to become a better leader and role model
History offers numerous examples of footballers using their platform for good, back to Jack Charlton of England’s World Cup-winning 1966 side, who co-founded the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s.
All over the world, NGOs use the sport as a vehicle for social progress. A global phenomenon with 3 billion fans, football is a common language across diverse communities. It is also an effective tool to attract disadvantaged young people, through their passion for the beautiful game.
In 2002, young PhD student and social entrepreneur Jürgen Griesbeck created a global network that he hoped would connect all grassroots football initiatives, under the umbrella Streetfootballworld. Football as a platform for development grew alongside professional football and by 2015, Streetfootballworld comprised 135 non-profit organisations in 90 countries, reaching more than 2 million people.
To scale up its global impact Griesbeck and Thomas Preiss, the head of business development, decided to launch a movement that players themselves would drive. It was a pledge to donate 1 per cent of salaries to a collective fund for all the organisations that use football to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They planned to recruit a starting lineup of 11 players. After eight months, they had only managed one: Juan Mata.
Mata, a midfielder for Spain and Manchester United, had criticised the “obscene” money that some elite male footballers earn. In August 2017, Brazilian player Neymar transferred from Barcelona to Paris St Germain for the unprecedented sum of £209m. “By pure coincidence,” says Preiss, he, Griesbeck, Mata and Ben Miller, an expert in the social impact of sports, launched their initiative the following day. It was called Common Goal.
Three years later, 160 people from the world of football have pledged 1 per cent of their salary. Half of those who have pledged are women; they represent 30 countries, and range from World Cup winners (such as the USA’s Megan Rapinoe) to Third Division players, as well as coaches, managers including Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp, referees and even lawyers: a new ecosystem of socially conscious football.
Juan Mata, Megan Rapinoe, Jürgen Klopp and Alex Morgan scale the greatest heights in football, but they still seek a greater purpose
Rapinoe, a longstanding LGBTQ+ activist, came to the fore of the movement when she took a knee in solidarity with former NFL player Colin Kaepernick: the first high-profile white athlete to do so. In March 2019, she led the women’s national team in suing the US soccer federation on the grounds of gender discrimination, as part of their ongoing battle for equal pay with the men. Her upcoming book, One Life, is a call to arms for everyone to fight for better.
Moya Dodd, an Australian lawyer and former national player, is now chair of Common Goal. She tells Positive News that football “is a place you come to be better”. “At the start, that’s always about being a better player,” she explains. “Over time, you want to become a better leader and role model. After a while, you think: ‘And then what?’ What if you win the World Cup, as Juan [Mata] did with Spain?
“It really is true that ‘winning isn’t everything’, even for those who have the drive, the talent and the opportunity to win everything. I know this, because I see Juan Mata, Megan Rapinoe, Jürgen Klopp and Alex Morgan scale the greatest heights in football, but they still seek a greater purpose in football than winning. That greater purpose is: through football, make the world better.”
They will be better players, teammates and people if they do what they can to make the world around them better
Charlie Daniels, former AFC Bournemouth fullback, says that as soon as his agent suggested he join Common Goal, “it was a no-brainer”.
“I jumped right on board,” he says. “It’s so little from your pay packet, 1 per cent: and it affects so many people – not just in this country but around the world. It helps everyone.”
Socially conscious footballers are perhaps nothing new, but social media has helped propel them to centre stage. “Players don’t need the filter of a journalist any more,” notes Miller, who now runs media relations at Common Goal. “They can say what they think and hopefully have the confidence to comment about things beyond the confines of football.”
“Players have a direct line to the world,” adds Dodd. “For those players with a strong sense of purpose, you can be sure that will shine through more brightly than in the past.”
The football historian Goldblatt also points to a change in how young footballers are educated. “The advent of the academy system in the Premier League has led to a bit more nurturing of young players; the humiliation and hierarchies of the old boot room have given way to a different kind of culture. It’s not a Steiner school, but it’s more open and requires less subservience than old-school football coaching cultures.”
Critics could argue that social activism is becoming more lucrative. Miller admits: “Any potential sponsor looking to align their values with the brand of a player would be attracted to athletes like Marcus Rashford. If you’re thinking like a football agent or a sponsorship director, if the footballer genuinely cares about something, it will drive more brands towards you as an athlete.”
The advent of the academy system in the Premier League has led to a bit more nurturing of young players
But players also reap personal benefits of being more socially conscious, from emotional wellbeing to prowess on the field.
According to Dan Levy, sports agent to the likes of Rapinoe and executive vice president at Olympics & The Collective: “We encourage our athletes to embrace their authentic selves. They will be better players, teammates and people if they speak their truths and do what they can to make the world around them better,” he says, adding that the business implications of speaking out shouldn’t come into it.
With role models like Rashford just beginning their careers, it’s likely that his formidable influence will help drive progress for his chosen causes for a long time to come.
Main image: Marcus Rashford is leading a campaign to tackle food poverty in the UK. Image: Reuters