The duty of any club, of any variety, should first and foremost be to its community. That’s sort of the point, and it applies just the same to the football world. Of course it’s a fantasy to expect to see eleven of your peers, or even countrymen, kicking the ball around in your clubs colours every weekend; the game, like most other walks of life, is now international. And a good thing too. If it weren’t, teams in England would still be playing the good old boot it and run whilst South America and continental Europe perfected their flair game. But even with such a diversified playing and coaching staff, it all eventually comes back to the community. It’s true that some of those involved on the playing side may struggle with this idea, and the concept of mercenaries is a real one, but the influence of the fans still exists. A manager’s ability to buy into the mood of a fanbase can often be the difference between them getting the benefit of the doubt and, well, just doubt. A player who out runs, out tackles and out sweats his teammates will be loved as much as any prolific goal scorer. When a home grown talent does manage to make the grade, they invariably feel the love more than any other.
But a football club’s role of community representation doesn’t just extend to 90 minutes on the pitch. For many towns and cities, a local club will provide entertainment, jobs, local pride, economic stimulation, community programmes, charity and community donations, support for social causes, and as a new addition, emergency response initiatives. In regions with higher levels of economic disparity, community food banks and social programmes come to rely on the support of local clubs, while visits to local hospitals and schools are seen as part and parcel of being a top level professional footballer. Collective agreements are also on the rise. The Premier League has been able to use its vast appeal to grow the influential PL Kicks programme, evolving from a four club pilot project in 2006 to now include 90 clubs from across the professional leagues, with a projection of over 175,000 lower income young people being reached between 2019-2022. The Professional Footballer’s Association, the union for English based professional footballers, also takes an active role in charity and community support. As well as giving direct support to organisations outside of the realm of football, the PFA has a tradition of aiding those players who choose to take things a step further than community outreach and donation.
The football organisations, as well as clubs, are aware of their duty to use their vast platform in a positive way. As an industry, and at the level of the individual player, the sport is a regular recipient of derision and and contempt from the outside. The runaway finances at the top level are undeniably problematic, while the behaviour of a minority of supporters is at times unfortunate. But with private investment coming thick and fast, not to mention the vast revenues generated by an invested public both domestic and overseas, is it really prudent to attack players for being paid market value? As for supporter behaviour, we can only hope that as our social demographics continue to evolve, prevailing attitudes do the same . Why a vocal minority of racists and misogynists involve themselves with the game is surely more to do with sheer volume of support than anything about football itself. Nothing about the game is perfect, and as with any industry there are good and bad actors. A compelling argument for why footballers in particular are such an easy target in England has to do with the permeations of class status, and an uneasy understanding of who gets what and why. This confused and suspicious environment is what allows tabloid papers like The Sun to publish their now infamous “Obscene Raheem” article detailing a house purchase by Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, whilst having little to say on former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s inclusion in the pandora paper leak, also due to a house purchase. As far as community goes, unpaid taxes seems a bit on the antisocial side.
Still, in all its unperfected glory, football plays a role. One impressively researched article, drawing on gov.uk statistics, ranks English football’s 20 most generous clubs between April 2018-19, and places their combined primary contributions (excluding secondary and affiliate charities) at £65,369,893. This spirit extends to the individual too. When the economic impacts of Covid-19 began to take their toll, the already low income city of Wolverhampton and its surrounding areas was hit hard. In 2020, players from Wolverhampton Wanderers made contributions to local hospitals, and in January 2021, manager at the time Nuno Espirito Santo put his hand in his pocket and donated £250,000 to local initiative Feed Our Pack. His actions have given a place in the hearts and community of the people of Wolverhampton, even after he has left the club. Other areas across the country were hit just the same, with similar local acts from clubs and players. However, it really is essential to remember that many of these communities were virtually on their knees long before any pandemic was around to point the finger to. The years prior to the pandemic saw the drastic remodeling of the welfare system, culminating in smaller benefit payments, longer wait times, greater sanctions, and reduced tax credits. Not so astonishingly, the use of food banks skyrocketed; one in 50 UK households needing the service in 2018-19. A similar lack of regard for the general populace is to be clearly seen in brutal cuts to the NHS in the preceding years. When an independent health foundation reveals that “the UK spends about half the share of GDP on capital investment in the health service compared to similar countries,” its fair to get the impression that we never had a chance once Covid hit. It’s facts such as these which make the comments from health secretary Matt Hancock about the need for footballers to play their part look desperate at best. But play their part they did, with the support from Nuno Santo for the Feed Our Pack initiative, though particularly generous, being part of a trend across the country. When they weren’t helping to feed the nations poor, Premier League footballers were helping to keep a creaking national health service afloat, via the #PlayersTogether NHS fund. Sticking with individuals filling in for broader society, its impossible to look past the efforts of
Marcus Rashford correction Marcus Rashford, MBE. His foray into the world of policy influence began in June 2020, when he expressed concern on twitter at the lack of government interest in extending the free school meal programme into the summer months, despite widespread concerns due to covid-19 related economic downturn. Over a two day back and forth and an open letter to government, his influence and determination were enough to force a U-turn, guaranteeing £15 a week beyond the school term for Britain’s most in need. Following on from this victory, Rashford formed a taskforce with leading charities and food providers, and a parliamentary petition #endchildfoodpoverty, with two out of three of the requests since being realised. The real term improvements of monetary value and reach of government food programmes is remarkable, and goes to show just how far a powerful, willing voice can go. At 24 years old, the Manchester United forward is clearly destined for big things on and off the pitch (hopefully with a few Premier League titles thrown in). I’m just glad he’s on our side.
Another arena in which football’s reach is significant is that of social justice. The three great blights on modern civil society, racism, sexism, and homophobia, naturally rear their heads in the world’s most followed sport. Much is being done on each front, though each issue currently lends itself to different levels of direct action. The women’s game, at long last, is well and truly in development. After being stifled for decades by outdated notions of gender roles, in 1993 the FA finally acted to incorporate women’s football into its fold. The game was no longer voluntary, and its evolution toward a formal pyramid, with fully professionalised top divisions, was possible. Progression since 1993 was gradual, but in recent years levels of investment and exposure have reached far more acceptable levels. The increase year on year of traditional clubs represented by women’s sides depicts a bright future for the game. LGBT+ inclusion in sport is perhaps the most sensitive issue currently under observation. The only way to achieve progression is through visibility and acceptance, which is precisely the aim of the Rainbow Laces campaign, a collaboration between LGBT+ charity Stonewall and the Premier League. Stonewall’s own research found that 65% of the British public have some concerns about anti LGBT+ abuse at live sporting events. The campaign’s endorsement by Liverpool captain Jordon Henderson will do it no harm at all. Racism in football is of course nothing new. But the overt abuse hurled at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka in the aftermath of England’s Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy was of the type that we like to pretend is no longer present in our game, indeed our society. How that argument even stacks up, as though different tiers of bigotry are somehow palatable, is another question. “We don’t throw bananas anymore, it was only online” seems about the strongest and equally stupidest argument. The fact that Raheem Sterling of Man City was in fact physically confronted in a racially aggravated attack in 2017 makes you wonder if Rashford, Sancho and Saka got off lightly. We have undoubtedly come a long way since the 70s and 80s, when brilliant players like Cyrille Regis and John Barnes took scathing abuse and bullets in the mail in their stride. But it remains the case that in the summer 2021, the entire England football camp at the European Championship made a collective decision to come together, out of respect for members of their community, to unite around the symbolic gesture of taking a knee in objection to oppression and discrimination. The response of a vocal minority of supporters to take it upon themselves to boo their team, though hugely disappointing, still wasn’t a shock to many. The biggest surprise of the whole affair was the response of senior members of government. Much had already been made of the taking of the knee over the previous football season. Dominic Raab, at the time the foreign secretary, was either confused or trying to be coy in his suggestion that the gesture was just an imitation of tv show Game of Thrones. The home secretary, ever diplomatic, made the correct if misguided assertion that it was the right of fans to boo what she labeled “gesture politics.” Boris Johnson’s refusal to condemn the booing left himself, as well as Patel and others, open to understandable charges of hypocrisy after their measured responses to the inevitable abuse aimed at Rashford and co. England centre back Tyrone Mings said what we were all thinking. Next, he ought to ask why she is so afraid of symbolic gestures. What is the donning of the poppy every November, if not a gesture? And one which, if publicly rejected, comes with fairly overt charges of disrespect and lack of patriotism. Clearly, some gestures are more equal than others.