Show Hide image

The new political football

Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and the rise of the activist super-players.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, as the country went into lockdown, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, demanded that, in the spirit of social solidarity, Premier League footballers should take a pay cut. Top-flight football operates as a rapacious meritocracy; it is one of the purest manifestations of free-market, winner-takes-all globalisation. Until the present crisis, the elite clubs’ business model was founded upon the complacent expectation of ever-rising television rights deals from home and overseas markets, as well as ripping off football supporters, who are considered to be a “captive market”. Premier League footballers, because of their spectacular wealth and ostentatious lifestyles, their sleeves of tattoos and body-narcissism, make an easy target for a cocksure politician such as Hancock.

The game’s global popularity and considerable soft power attract the covetous desires of acquisitive plutocrats, oligarchs and Gulf autocrats – Saudi Arabia is the latest nation state that wants to own a Premier League club. It lavishly rewards the best players and their agents, and in recent years has become largely colour-blind: if a player is good enough, no matter where he is from in the world, he will play and be paid what the market rate commands.

Some footballers are poor role models, but most are not. It’s true that the most successful, from a very young age, live extraordinarily privileged and cloistered lives: pampered, protected, indulged. Most players have not been educated beyond the age of 16, but this doesn’t mean that they lack intelligence or are ignorant or uninterested in what is happening in the world around them, as is often assumed. Increasingly, as recent interventions in the public square by Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Tyrone Mings and others have demonstrated, some footballers are politically literate and socially engaged. They do not conform to stereotype. You could even say that we are witnessing something entirely new: the rise of the activist super-player.

****

The activist super-players often draw on their early experiences of hardship and poverty, as Rashford, the Manchester United and England striker, did when campaigning for the homeless last Christmas and then recently for the government to extend the free school meals scheme into the summer holiday. Rashford, who grew up in Wythenshawe, Manchester, the youngest of five children of a single mother who worked as a cashier in a betting shop, was himself a recipient of free school meals and has never forgotten how he felt about it.

In response to Rashford’s campaign – he appeared on the main BBC News, published an article in the Times, released an open letter to the government, and tweeted forcefully – Boris Johnson announced what he called a £120m “Covid summer food fund” for disadvantaged children. With a backbench rebellion brewing, Johnson blustered that he had not previously been aware of Rashford’s campaign, as if no one advising him had bothered even to inform him about it. The next day, Hancock thanked “Daniel” Rashford for his efforts. The Manchester United player responded to the gaffe with good humour: “I’ve been called worse names than that!”

After all, he had won a notable campaign victory – but though he was delighted, he was not satisfied. “I don’t want this to be the end of it because there are more steps that need to be taken and we just need to analyse the response,” he told the BBC. “People are struggling all year around, so we still need to learn more about the situation people are in and how we can help them best.”


Credit: Michelle Thompson

As Rashford demonstrated, the new activist super-players understand the power of social media. They have many millions of followers across various platforms and they know how to bolster their causes and campaigns, or to defend themselves when they believe they have been unfairly criticised. This is what Sterling, the Manchester City and England forward, did in 2018 after he was denounced for having the image of an assault rifle tattooed on his leg.

This moment served as Sterling’s public awakening – and repositioning. He’d had enough of the way he was being portrayed in the press and fought back. First, he published an article on sports site the Players’ Tribune in which he recalled his impoverished infancy in Jamaica and the murder of his father when he was two; the tattoo of the gun on his leg served as a permanent reminder of his violent death, he said. Sterling’s mother uprooted the family to London when he was five, and he described how he would help her clean toilets so that she could earn enough to continue her studies; she now runs a care home. Sterling was often disruptive at school and was once told he would either end up in prison or play football for England. He grew up in the shadow of Wembley Stadium and dreamed of one day playing there. Years later he organised for 550 children from his old school to get tickets for an FA Cup match at Wembley.

“All I have to tell you is that 15 years ago, we were cleaning toilets in Stonebridge and getting breakfast out of the vending machine,” he wrote. “If anybody deserves to be happy, it’s my mum. She came to this country with nothing and put herself through school cleaning bathrooms and changing bed sheets, and now she’s the director of a nursing home. And her son plays for England.” The piece ends jubilantly: “I’m telling you right now… England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream.”

Since then, Sterling has emerged as a leading anti-racism campaigner, appearing on Newsnight to discuss the murder of George Floyd and leading the debate among players about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign. On 22 June, he tweeted “TimeForChange” after a chartered plane had flown above the Manchester City-Burnley televised match trailing the banner “White lives matter Burnley”.

“At this moment in time, there’s only so much people can take,” Sterling had previously told the BBC. “There’s only so much communities and other backgrounds can take – especially black people. It’s been going on for hundreds of years and people are tired and people are ready for change.”

In a recent campaigning video – featuring present or former players, including Lucy Bronze, Vincent Kompany and the broadcaster Gary Lineker – released on the eve of the resumption of the Premier League on 17 June, Sterling declares: “I will never tire of being black.” The closing statement is emphatic: “Change needs to happen… now.”

****

Sterling and Rashford are the most prominent of the new activist super-players, but others share their social conscience and have taken note. Tyrone Mings, the Aston Villa defender who as a child lived for a time with his mother and sisters in a homeless shelter, but later won a football scholarship to Millfield School, recently attended a BLM march in Birmingham. He has also raised funds for homeless charities and campaigned on mental health issues. “I’ve been in a lot of unfavourable situations growing up, so I know what it’s like to need help,” Mings said. “If you are in any position of influence, then it’s almost your duty to try to help. If people don’t have the ability or opportunity to help themselves, then sometimes it’s got to come from someone who can.”

The England captain, Harry Kane – not renowned for his political commitment – has also challenged preconceptions by announcing during the lockdown that he would personally sponsor Leyton Orient club shirts next season. He once played for the club on loan from Spurs and grew up close to the stadium in east London. Orient’s shirt will carry a message of support to “heroes” working on the front line against coronavirus; the away shirt will carry the logo of a children’s hospice, and the third kit will promote the mental health charity Mind. One could be cynical and say that such actions help burnish Kane’s “brand”. Equally, one could be generous and fair-minded and say: “Good on you, Harry!”

What we cannot deny is that, during this period of social upheaval and turbulent politics, the new activist super-players are determined to be heard in ways that are often surprising and unexpected.

****

In the early 2000s I travelled to Valencia on a reporting assignment. One evening while I was there, I watched the local team play Real Madrid. I sat among the home supporters at the Mestalla stadium and listened, aghast, as Real’s Roberto Carlos and Claude Makélélé were abused whenever they touched the ball. These players were, of course, black – one from Brazil, the other a Kinshasa-born Frenchman, who later played for Chelsea. I hadn’t heard anything to compare to the abuse at a football match since a Southampton-Millwall First Division game in the late 1980s when I was a student. There was one black player on the pitch that night in Spain who wasn’t being traduced and whom I’d planned to meet the next day: the Norwegian John Carew. He played for Valencia. Yet how must he have felt to hear the visiting black players received with such venomous contempt?

From that night in Valencia I recall, in particular, the expression of hatred on the face of a smartly dressed, bespectacled, middle-aged man. He was sitting with a young boy whom I presumed was his son, and he grunted, in mock imitation of a demented monkey, whenever Carlos sprinted along the touchline. Others around him joined in what was a repellent chorus of hate.

Such complacent tolerance of racism was then commonplace in Spain, as it was in many other European countries. A couple of years later, in 2004, England’s black players were racially abused during an international friendly match in Madrid. Gary Neville, the former Manchester United defender, played in that game and during the recent BLM protests he expressed shame that he had remained silent afterwards. Nor had he sought to comfort his black teammates in the dressing room. After the match, the Spanish Football Federation press officer, Fernando Garrido, said there had been no racist chanting at Spanish football matches “for many years”. In a training session before the match, then Spanish coach Luis Aragonés dismissed the Arsenal and French striker Thierry Henry as a “black shit”.

When I was writing my book The Last Game: Love, Death and Football (2009), which is about political, music and football culture at the end of the 1980s, I spoke to several pioneering black players about their early experiences of racism. One morning I met Paul Davis, who made his debut in 1980 and went on to play 447 games for Arsenal, for coffee in a Covent Garden hotel. During our conversation, I noticed how he slipped into the present tense as he recalled the racism he’d endured as a young player.

“It’s tough; you cannot block it,” he told me. “You just have to find a way round it… Concentrate on your work. Don’t retaliate. Try to get a result for yourself and the team. I remember the noise, so intense. Everyone standing. It’s very intimidating. I take the corners. I’m close to the fans as I take them. It’s a real tough one. It resonated for me when the England guys had that trouble in Spain a couple of years ago [in Madrid]. It brought it all back.”

In 2005, I was working at the Observer and, after the notorious Madrid match, I sent the writer Martin Jacques to Spain to investigate racism in football. Jacques understood something fundamental about football: that it was, as he put it, the faultline of racism in Europe. It mirrors and gives expression to society’s passions and prejudices. “No other activity, be it cultural or political, commands the emotion, passion and allegiance, certainly of men, in the same way. Football is the cultural lingua franca of European men… Indeed, it is about the only activity in which men collectively and publicly express their own emotions.”

His conclusion was that racism was endemic in the game, but that modern football also had a subversive, rebellious quality. “Football is the game of the masses, which is why it is increasingly a game of colour… Football offers a level playing field for the poor… and it is difficult to think of another walk of life where those not only of African descent but also largely from poor countries are so admired and acclaimed.” But, as he pointed out, football was a multiracial game only on the pitch.

What Jacques wrote then remains largely true today. And yet, it is only in recent years that racism in football, institutional or otherwise, has become a matter of urgent public priority. In November 2000, Darcus Howe, the late writer and political activist, wrote a column in the New Statesman headlined, “To black footballers, I say: walk off if fans abuse you.”

I have always remembered the column because Howe’s view seemed so bold. But, as on many issues, he was ahead of the game. The number of black players was increasing every year, Howe wrote, and this was the moment to make a dramatic stand. “Emile Heskey, formerly of Leicester and now of Liverpool, went to Italy to represent England; the racial slogans and abuse knew no bounds. He took it all, in the name of England. And you know what blew my mind? The reporters congratulated him on his stoicism. The Negro, you see, had turned the other cheek. He had been tamed.

“What could he have done? He could have walked off the pitch, watched by millions the world over, with a lingering strut, head high, inviting Beckham and the rest to follow. The following Saturday, black players could have demanded a minute’s silence before every match. The slogan should be ‘Get ready to rumble’.

“The football authorities would soon design new rules, once the revolt spread through-­­ out this nation, à la Stephen Lawrence.”

Howe was writing during an era when sports stars – especially if they were black or mixed race – were encouraged to remain silent on contentious political matters. Even when they were at their most dominant, some of the world’s most iconic black stars – notably Tiger Woods, the world’s first sports billionaire, and Michael Jordan – mostly refrained from talking about racial inequality and discrimination. Their public utterances were characterised by a kind of corporate apolitical blandness – or caution.

As recently as 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49ers quarterback and civil rights campaigner, was ostracised by the National Football League and condemned by Donald Trump because he kneeled – “took the knee” – during the national anthem before a game in protest at police brutality and racial inequality in the US.

****

Fast-forward to October last year. England were playing Bulgaria in a Euro 2020 qualifying match. A section of Bulgarian supporters – so-called neo-Nazi ultras – were notoriously racist. Much of the pre-match discussion was about whether the England players should walk off in alliance with their black teammates if they were racially abused. Before the game, Tammy Abraham, the young Chelsea striker, urged his teammates to do what Darcus Howe advised all those years earlier: to leave the pitch in protest if the racial abuse started. He was supported by his manager, Gareth Southgate, who did not demand walk-offs but said that the team would follow Uefa protocol and report any racist chanting to the match officials.

In the event, the game was interrupted twice during the first half because of the abuse directed in particular at two England players, Raheem Sterling and Tyrone Mings, who was making his debut. (Rashford scored England’s first goal that night.) Southgate discussed the abandonment of the game with officials and, at half-time, the Bulgarian captain entered the crowd to speak to some of the aggressors in an attempt to calm them. Some of the most belligerent left at that point and the game was completed, with England winning 6-0.

Afterwards, the England players responded with dignity and emotional intelligence. Rashford tweeted: “Not an easy situation to play in and not one which should be happening in 2019. Proud we rose above it to take three points but this needs stamping out.” He added: “Also been told what the Bulgaria captain did at half-time. To stand alone and do the right thing takes courage and acts like that shouldn’t go unnoticed. #NoToRacism.” Sterling, who scored twice, said, “Feeling sorry for Bulgaria to be represented by such idiots in their stadium… We did our job. ”

****

England are fortunate to have in Gareth Southgate a coach who is intelligent, articulate and alert to the political tensions and complexities of our times. He understands the difference between patriotism and nationalism. He began his career at Crystal Palace in a team that had several notable black English players, including Ian Wright, the brilliant striker who is now a cherished national figure. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, as his team progressed to the semi-finals, Southgate spoke well about the conflicts and confusions of English identity in a fragmenting multinational state. He also recognised that England’s history of immigration was present in his multiracial team – and he welcomed it.

He wanted his players to represent the national team with pride, humility and commitment, while remaining true to themselves. “We have the chance to affect something bigger than ourselves,” Southgate said. “We’re a team with our diversity and our youth that represent modern England. In England we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us.”


So near, yet so far: England fans at the end of the World Cup semi-final against Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 11 July 2018. Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

The Russia World Cup coincided with a remarkably settled and hot summer in England. For a time, as the national team progressed to the semi-finals, millions of people were united by an interest in the football. “I don’t know if ‘football’s coming home’, or what this even means,” wrote Suzanne Moore. “But I do know that my home is surrounded by English flags, proudly displayed in ways that they would not have been a few years ago. Most people want England to do well. Even my indifference is wavering.”

She liked the fact that Southgate was “showing rather than telling us what a modern English identity might be. Englishness is still an awkward concept for the left and I have long argued that if we fail to address this, we cede this territory entirely to the right; that if England cannot speak for itself, it will find a way.”

In his excellent recent book New Model Island, Alex Niven, a writer and academic, came up with a neologism to describe this fleeting period of hopefulness that seemed to encourage, or coincide with, a reconsideration of what it means to be English: “Southgat(e)ism”. I asked him what he meant by it. “For me Southgat(e)ism refers to that brief, heady moment in the summer of 2018 when the turmoil of the 2010s seemed to give way to a more positive atmosphere in England (obviously the narrative was slightly different in Wales, Scotland and Ireland),” he wrote in an email.

“With hindsight the 2017-19 interlude already seems like a strange hiatus, but in the middle of it there was this weirdly hot summer after a brutal winter, and an unusually exciting, good-natured World Cup in Russia. The strong showing of the England team under Gareth Southgate genuinely united a broad swathe of people living in England who otherwise wouldn’t have felt anything in common.”

The squad was ethnically diverse, drawn mainly from the black and working-class communities of London and the northern cities, which don’t often feature in stereotypes about Englishness. “But while some have said this offers a model for ‘progressive patriotism’, I’m sceptical that Southgat(e)ism can ever become a political reality – and I think the opposition that opened up last week between Rashford and Johnsonian nationalism underlines this,” Niven told me. “It seems more like the exception that proves the rule as far as Englishness goes: a haunting glimpse of what might have been in a country without our burden of traditionalism and lack of republican and modernist credentials.”

****

In recent weeks, as the nations of the United Kingdom have emerged uneasily from lockdown, the BBC has been broadcasting notable matches from Euro 96, which was the first major football tournament to be held in England since the 1966 World Cup. The repeats were a form of displacement activity: this summer the Euros were scheduled to have returned to England as part of a transnational tournament spread across 12 cities; Wembley was set to host some group games, as well as the semi-finals and final.

I seldom watch reruns of sporting contests: the thrill of fandom surely lies in anticipation, in not knowing what will happen next. What interested me about the return of Euro 96 was less the football itself than observing the mood and behaviour of the fans inside Wembley Stadium. What were we like back then and what did we want?

I was at the England-Scotland match on Saturday 15 June 1996 at Wembley and what was most striking to me then – apart from the exuberance of the rival fans – was the ubiquity of the flag of St George. The national culture was changing around us. We were less than a year away from New Labour’s landslide victory, and the devolution settlement and the Good Friday Agreement that followed soon after it. The cracks in the unity of the UK were already widening as a greater sense of national self-consciousness stirred among the English and Scots, and began to find greater expression through sport, especially football. Here was a mirror in which we could see the changing relationship of England and Scotland.

On Saturday 13 June 2020, as the BBC showed the repeat of the England-Netherlands match from Euro 96, far-right “football lads” clashed with police in Parliament Square. They had come out in response to the BLM protests and were acting as self-proclaimed defenders of the nation’s heritage. Here was a throwback to the old football culture of the Seventies and Eighties: resentful, enraged. As I watched footage of the clashes on social media, I couldn’t stop thinking about how nationalism and sport remain so tightly intertwined; about how the vicarious expression of nationalism through sporting allegiance can be ugly – as demonstrated by the events in Parliament Square – but also how it can be redemptive. It can provide those rare moments of togetherness and expressions of fellow feeling – moments of Southgat(e)ism if you will – as experienced during the 2018 World Cup, or Euro 96, or indeed the 2012 London Olympics, notably Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, which, as Richard J Evans wrote in these pages last week, made many people “feel proud to be British”.

****

Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling personify the new rising English self-consciousness, shaped by a belief in a more active sense of inclusive citizenship and togetherness through diversity. They do not preach an abstract, atomised diversity; what they share is a vision of the future that is different and more hopeful than what they knew when they were growing up as young boys in poverty. They share something else besides: inspirational mothers. And they love their country – or what it could become.

As Rashford wrote on Twitter after he had heard about the effect of his campaign on government policy: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.” Or let’s recall what Sterling wrote at the end of his Players’ Tribune piece in 2018: “I’m telling you right now… England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream.”

Sterling and Rashford might be living their dream, but their activism shows they have not forgotten the majority of people who are not. And they want to do something about it. Their public utterances are not divisive, partisan, condemnatory or absolutist. They are constructive. They want to effect change. And they reject the language of hatred and polarisation that has characterised so much of our discourse in recent years. Where they lead, others may follow. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 26 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football