Football, and footballers, have long been stuck with a bad reputation. Hooliganism colours many people’s opinions of the sport just as much as the highly inflated salaries of players, while instances of corruption within governing bodies often raise serious question marks over the value of football in our society.
Although some of the criticisms levelled at football and footballers are justified, the issues with the sport certainly do not extend to all levels and to all players. The recent campaigning of Marcus Rashford, for instance, is emblematic of the possibility for the wealth and status of football personalities to enact positive societal change. However, can the good done by Mr Rashford and others like him atone for the bigotry and hatred that sadly still permeates a large proportion of football fandom?
Marcus Rashford, a forward at Manchester United and known across the country as a starlet of the England national team, has been inescapable in the news throughout his campaign for the government to provide free school meals for those children who too often go hungry without the intervention of such programmes. After much resistance from the government regarding budgetary concerns, Mr Rashford has seemed to finally get his point across to the Prime Minister and the two are now in discussion over plans to cover children’s meals over the Christmas period with a £170m pledge.
Considering the harsh poverty presently crippling thousands of British families due to the COVID-19 pandemic, initiatives such as this are absolutely crucial to ensuring that economic insecurity does not take lives that could otherwise be saved by proper nutrition.
Rashford is not alone in his pursuit of goodwill and positive change. In fact, it is becoming increasingly common for clubs and players to encourage involvement in charitable work to aid their local communities.
For example, amongst the many behind-the-scenes insights captured by Amazon’s latest instalment in its All or Nothing documentaries is the work done by Tottenham Hotspur and its players in the community. While it is former Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen that the cameras follow on a delivery to a local foodbank, the club also regularly sends its players on a multitude of hospital visits and outreach programmes.
This level of community involvement is a significant duty upheld by many clubs both within England and across the world, as football tries to amend its reputation.
Upsettingly, there are those who still fail to see football in this light and persist in spreading hate and vitriol at matches and in discussions on social media. One of the few benefits of the pandemic is that hooliganism and hatred have been without a home as games have been played behind closed doors, though with proper motivation certain individuals have still tried to sow division.
For instance, following this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Burnley supporter arranged for a banner reading “White Lives Matter Burnley!” to fly over the Etihad Stadium during Burnley’s away fixture against Manchester City. The action was condemned by Burnley and its players, and the individual who organised the banner was promptly fired from his job. It is surely a good sign that swift action was taken by all relevant parties to demonstrate that such despicable behaviour is unacceptable, though such actions will only change the minds of those willing to listen.
Indeed, racism and other forms of prejudice are extremely troubling issues inherent among vast swathes of football supporters. Several campaigns have been set up in an attempt to combat racism within the sport, such as Say No To Racism and Kick It Out, though despite these efforts statistics from the 2019-2020 season has seen a 42% increase in discrimination and a 53% increase in reports of racial abuse. Furthermore, the long-standing homophobia synonymous with football hooligans has also gained momentum, with a 95% rise in reports of abuse based on sexual-orientation taking place during the 2019-2020 season.
The challenges posed by such ugly manifestations of hatred as these are not being left to fester- with each rise in cases of abuse comes an increased effort to stamp out hatred from a sport affectionately known as ‘the beautiful game’.
This year has seen an escalation in tensions regarding asylum seekers making the perilous journey across the channel seeking shelter from war and tyranny. Thankfully, organisations such as Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) are persistent in their efforts to change the perception of migrants and to help them to integrate within British society. FURD is just one of many organisations which run informal training sessions for refugees and asylum seekers, and has been doing so since 1996. All expenses are covered for each session, and a hot meal is provided for all. For many young asylum seekers who have only recently entered the country, sessions such as these will be their first opportunity to meet a new social group of their age.
Ultimately, the hatred, division and inequality which FURD, Kick It Out and many more are fighting against will die out. This is not to say that the continued influence of such figures and institutions is unnecessary, but rather that it is fundamental to the metamorphosis of football from a sport of hooligans to a force for good in society.
The example set by Marcus Rashford is just as profound – if not more so – as he has demonstrated to this generation of players and the next that they have the power to enact some tangible positive change in the world.
Football may have its complications, but despite the slow progress, it is undeniable that it is becoming a much more positive facet of society than it once was.
Harry Sanders is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service – the UK’s leading immigration solicitors.