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CW: Racial abuse

Last summer, the ever-rapacious tabloids pounced on the story of a high-profile married man of fifteen years caught having an affair with a woman he employed. Throw in a trip to a brothel and you’ve got a scandal worthy even of a noughties Wayne Rooney. But this ‘celebrity’ doesn’t hail from the football pitches. Unfortunately for those of us who have the groping and slobbering image of that kiss forever seared into our memories, there is no mistaking this miniature sensation: Matt Hancock’s affair with Gina Colangelo. 

At the time, our Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was solemnly telling us to stay well away from each other at all costs (in the moments when he could bring himself to come up for air). Commendable multi-tasking aside, it does beg the question of why the tabloids seem to be having more luck honing in on the dubious actions of some of the nation’s leaders rather than those of their erstwhile best customers: footballers.

If we scan the headlines from the past few months relating to footballers, we could be forgiven for wondering if we have side-stepped into a parallel universe. Take, for instance, the Romanian football team’s scheme to promote the adoption of stray dogs by bringing puppies onto the pitch. Ten years ago, ‘puppies’ was slang for breasts and this seemed the only kind that footballers were interested in stroking. Last I knew, footballers used their celebrity to pick up girls and get away with drink-driving, not to engage in serious campaigns for animal welfare. 

There are similar dichotomies closer to home. Back in 2012, John Terry was stripped of his captaincy for racially abusing another player, Anton Ferdinand. This came only three years after rumours of Terry’s affair with Manchester City player Wayne Bridge’s wife Vanessa Peroncel. Skip forward a decade or so and you find Harry Kane wearing a rainbow captain’s armband in support of the LGBTQ+ community and leading a team which took the knee at the start of each Euros match to campaign against racism.

So when did the world turn on its head to produce this new generation of socially responsible footballers? When else but 2020. Dropped as we were into the middle of the sort of crisis which felt like a prelude to The Walking Dead, we needed a competent, serious, and empathetic leader to convince us they could guide us out of it before we would need to panic-buy crossbows as well as toilet roll.

Enter, erm… Boris Johnson? Predictably, people began to lose faith in the government. An Observer poll in April 2020 reported that only 49% of people had confidence in the government’s ability to cope with the situation as it continued to develop and that 57% disapproved of how they had handled the pandemic thus far. We needed someone whose motivations and abilities we could trust. But who would have thought that this would come in the form of a footballer? 

In March 2020, Marcus Rashford launched his ‘meal a day’ campaign to ensure children living below the poverty line would still be entitled to the free meal they would normally receive at school during lockdown. By June of that year, aged only 22, he had raised £20 million for his cause. At the same age, Boris Johnson had barely grown out of his Bullingdon Club days of burning £50 notes in front of Oxford’s homeless. And that’s the difference: Rashford understands how tough life can be for people, while Boris seems to think it’s a bit like classical music — he’s sure it’s all worthy of attention and so on, but just pretends to be interested in it so he doesn’t look bad in front of his dinner party guests. As Marcus Rashford said, “I believe that if the government had the information that I have, and they spoke to the people that I have spoken to, from all different areas of the country, they would want to review it and change it themselves.”

The Prime Minister can’t help that he was born in wildly different circumstances to most of the people he governs, but he could stoop to find out what they actually want and need as individuals. Johnson’s rhetoric of ‘putting his arms around the people of this entire country throughout the pandemic’ simply does not cut it. While he’s sitting around thinking of the best metaphor to make him sound a bit more like Winston Churchill, children are going hungry. Are we even surprised? Boris Johnson’s carefully curated image of himself as a bit of a clown says it all: if he thought this would make him more popular as a politician, it shows how little he thinks of the general public. We don’t want a hirsute caricature of a children’s entertainer in charge of us all, we want someone who can get the job done. Can you imagine Marcus Rashford entering the 2012 Olympics by dangling like a lumpen scarecrow from a zipwire? No, he takes us too seriously to do that and it makes a refreshing change.

The contrast lives on, showing how much we still need this alternative arena for the discussion of our society’s most pressing issues. At the start of October, the £20 cut to Universal Credit came into effect at the same time as Marcus Rashford collected his honorary degree from the University of Manchester for his battle to reduce child poverty, and he described the experience as ‘bittersweet’. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps stated that the cut was necessary because ‘If you want to carry on with that uplift you need to find £6bn from somewhere’. The £830 million pounds dished out in PPE contracts which ‘never materialised’ might have been a good start. Not to mention the £252 million contract awarded to Ayanda Capital for PPE, apparently because CEO Tim Horlicks had links to the Department for International Trade. This contract was later scrapped over safety concerns, and a lawsuit opened against the government by the companies whose contract proposals had been rejected. Shapps should maybe check the lining of his party leadership’s friends’ pockets for the £6 billion pounds he needs to prevent people from having to choose between food and heating their homes. It would have the added benefit of saving some people from the equally agonising choice between Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.  

In the meantime, football is stepping up to fill the void created by Parliament and provide us with a centre for serious discussions on social and economic equality. Is this as unlikely as it first sounds? On the one hand, decidedly yes. The ‘playboy’ reputation of 90s and 2000s footballers and its history of violent and narrow-minded hooliganism among those who supported it could preclude the possibility of football serving any kind of moral purpose. The sickening racism following the Euros final could have been the nail in the coffin for the sport becoming socially responsible.

However, footballers and teams are undeniably becoming better role models for their fans. Manchester United’s ‘See Red’ campaign to encourage fans to report or challenge hate crime is another example of teams and players using their standing to promote change. The high financial stakes and popular following of football mean it has the potential to be really successful in driving social and even political change. And perhaps this is fitting rather than surprising after all. Football has been where the working class have congregated and clashed for decades, to the point where it has almost come to symbolise them. If the people are going to take charge of the social and economic inequality which has dictated life in this country for so long, where better for this to happen than in their own epicentre for the dispute between red and blue?

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