‘Life has not been the same without football’

Who’s the real leader? Rashford 1-0 Boris, read a cheeky sign yesterday.

Does football do more for society than politics? The Premier League returned last night, a day after Marcus Rashford scored a triumphant victory over the government on free school meals.

“When will football be back?” For some people, this has been the single-most important question during the Covid-19 pandemic. Any global economic recovery can come later.

Last night, 100 days since the last ball was kicked in anger in the Premier League, the sport returned as Aston Villa kicked off against Sheffield United. All teams took the knee before kick-off in memory of George Floyd.

It felt different. Grounds will be empty for the rest of the season. The shouts of players could be heard, rather than being drowned out by the crowd. But anything will do for an addict craving their fix – and for them, being able to appreciate great skill and argue about VAR are vital signs that life may be returning to normal.

The lockdown started with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, suggesting that footballers take pay cuts. But, this week, the game scored a huge victory as a campaign by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford forced a government U-turn, meaning 1.3 million children will be able to claim free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays.

Football has shown its social power during the pandemic. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich made the club’s hotel available to NHS staff free of charge. Brighton has pledged 1,000 free tickets for health workers for when fans are allowed to return.

And, this week, Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerín has pledged to plant 3,000 trees for every Arsenal win – for the rest of the season.

The Premier League contributes nearly £8 billion a year to the UK economy – which is equivalent to the GDP of a small country.

A Murray State University study has found that being an ardent sports fan makes people happier. The study found that serious fandom correlates with well-being and happiness as well as lower levels of alienation and loneliness.

During the absence of football, there has been a steep rise in anxiety disorders and mental illness. Some sociologists have even suggested that the violence in London last weekend was due in part to frustration and boredom caused by the lack of any outlet for gangs of sports fans.

Rashford’s triumph is that he judged the mood of the country better than the government. The newspaper headlines proclaimed him as a hero – with one calling for him to be made prime minister.

It was a joke. But many commentators have pointed out that Rashford and other stars, such as Raheem Sterling, have become skilled at using their platforms to campaign for social change. With their popularity and financial clout, their influence is huge – arguably greater than any politician.

It has prompted the wider question whether football today does more for society than politics?

A wider goal?

No. Of course not, say some. Football does not make laws or hold elections. It does not declare war or find a path through a global pandemic. Almost twice as many people go to the theatre every year than attend a Premier League match. We should not elevate football to this status.

Yes. As Marina Hyde writes in the Guardian: “In terms of moral worth and strategic competence, how many Gavin Williamsons would you have to amass before you were even close to the value of one Marcus Rashford?”

You Decide

  1. Does football bring out the best in people – or the worst?
  2. Do you want footballers to become more active in politics?

Activities

  1. Make a poster of your favourite footballer.
  2. Imagine you had to make a speech arguing that football was more important than politics. Write down all the key points that you can think of. Try them out on an adult in your household and then try to rank them in order of effectiveness.

Some People Say...

“Football is the most important of the least important things in life.”

Arrigo Sacchi, former AC Milan manager

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
For better or worse, lots of people care far more about football than about politics. Studies consistently show that about 75 per cent of Britons cannot name their local MP, while around four billion people around the world consider themselves football fans. We know that every major football club does a lot of charitable work, and that more and more footballers are becoming politically active.
What do we not know?
How genuine this all is. How much of the good work done by players and clubs is largely a public relations exercise. The Covid-19 pandemic will cause huge financial problems for many clubs, especially smaller ones. Will that lead to clubs being less charitable or will the example of Marcus Rashford and others result in football becoming more closely intertwined with various social causes?

Word Watch

Empty
Many wonder whether home advantage will play any part in the remaining games. Since the German Bundesliga restarted a month ago, there have been more away wins than home wins.
VAR
Video assistant referee.
U-turn
Rashford wrote an open letter to MPs, in which he referenced his upbringing in Wythenshawe, Manchester. “My mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough,” he wrote.
Héctor Bellerín
The Arsenal right-back is more politically active than most footballers. He has spoken out about the environment many times and is also a vegan. In 2018, he said, “The young people are trying to fight for a world where there is equality.”
Study
Daniel Wann, the author, wrote: “One reason would be following a successful team, and the second would simply be identifying with them. You can get these well-being benefits even if your team doesn’t do well; we’ve found this with historically unsuccessful teams as well.”
Ardent
Very enthusiastic or passionate.
Correlates
A connection, in which one thing affects or depends on another.
Clout
Influence or power, especially in politics or business.
Amass
Gather together (a large amount or number of things) over a period of time.

Subjects

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