One of the more surprising consequences of the pandemic has been the evolution of Premier League footballers into political activists. You might have thought players would spend the hiatus glued to their PlayStations, or worrying where their next haircut would come from. Instead, they have taken to the barricades, campaigning on racism, the environment, school meals and the NHS.
They have not traditionally nailed their colours to the mast like this. We know plenty about David Beckham, but not where he stood on the Iraq war. Sir Stanley Matthews took his views on the EEC to the grave with him. There have been some notable exceptions: Jack Charlton, who died in early July, was the last remaining England player to have begun his working life in a pit. He was a vocal supporter of the miners’ strike, a stance some believe cost him the chance to become England manager. In 1997, Liverpool players Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman displayed t-shirts in support of striking dockers.
On the political right, Sol Campbell ran as Tory mayoral candidate in 2014, and the old goalie Peter Shilton tweets a bit in support of Brexit. But while there has been no shortage of rebels – Eric Cantona, George Best and Gazza spring to mind – few have had causes. That perception changed on June 15, when the 22-year-old Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford wrote an open letter to MPs. The government had planned to discontinue free school meals during the summer holidays, which would have deprived an estimated 200,000 children of food. In asking MPs to reconsider this decision, Rashford eloquently described how important this kind of support was during his own childhood in Wythenshawe, south Manchester.
“As a family,” he wrote, “we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches.” The letter was reported on by every newspaper and widely shared. Two days later, having initially stuck to its guns, the government reversed its decision. At first Boris Johnson claimed to have been unaware of Rashford’s campaign, then phoned the striker to congratulate him on the campaign. Not wanting to miss out on the chance to seem in touch, Matt Hancock praised the good work of “Daniel Rashford”.
“It’s a generational thing,” Rashford said after the u-turn. “This generation, we’re not afraid to stand up and be counted.” There have been flickers of increasing political awareness throughout the league. In June, the Arsenal right back Hector Bellerin, a keen environmentalist, announced he would plant 3,000 trees in the Amazon for every game the team won. (Students of Arsenal’s recent form suggested this might not be as onerous a commitment as it sounded.) It wasn’t Bellerin’s first foray into politics. At the last election, he expressed his support for Jeremy Corbyn, whose Islington North constituency includes Arsenal’s ground.
The Black Lives Matter protests sparked another round of activism. When the league restarted, every player, and referees, started kneeling before matches as a gesture of solidarity, a tradition borrowed from American football. For the first game back, the players wore shirts that said BLACK LIVES MATTER instead of their names. Where it was once a dangerous PR move to speak out against racism, it’s now riskier not to join in.
Where did the new wave of activism start? Perhaps with the Man City star Raheem Sterling. For years, black players had spoken out about racism from the stands, but in 2018 Sterling addressed something just as pernicious, the tacit racism from the media. Thanks in part to social media, players are realising that they can circumvent nervous press officers and old-fashioned journalists to speak directly about what matters to them. With millions of followers, they have audiences most politicians can only dream of.
While the English players are only just waking up to their campaigning power, in other countries football has long been a route into politics. The first Icelandic professional, Albert Gudmundsson, later served as finance and interior minister. Marc Wilmots, the Belgium striker, was elected to the country’s senate in 2003, and the Brazilian legend Romario is a senator as well. Greatest of all is George Weah, the AC Milan star of the 90s, who is now the president of Liberia.
Perhaps this is partly down to British football’s more working-class history: the middle-class types who might be more likely to seek office in later life have ended up playing cricket or at the Olympics instead. But that’s changing, just as working-class footballers are realising their position lets them do more than kick a ball around. It may be too soon to talk about Prime Minister Rashford, but the man knows an open goal when he sees one.