Marcus Rashford is one of the faces of 2020, a young footballer who urged the UK government to help children with school meals at a time when low-income families were being severely challenged. Rashford has become just as relevant to 2020 as Greta Thunberg was in 2018 when she led climate change protests.
His elevation to symbol for social change also set a new benchmark for footballers worldwide, introducing purpose to their role as highly-paid sports people. Increasingly, over the past few years, some football clubs and their fans have attempted to attach themselves to causes, initiatives and movements that try to use the power of football to underpin social, and occasionally, political, action.
The World Football Summit’s opening session on November 23 focused on “How to embed purpose in the fabric of football”, and suggested the role of professional footballers is changing. Young players are now realising they are not just on a “career journey” but also a “purpose journey”. They now want to be associated with good causes, either collectively or individually, such as charities, foundations and movements. Some players, such as Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerín, have succeeded in appearing far more interesting and thoughtful than someone who merely kicks a ball around.
Some might say that this is long overdue: the corporate world has, over the past 15 years, pushed young people towards their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, as a means to improve the image of the firm and also to position their people as more rounded citizens. Indeed, some companies make it clear that careers are positively enhanced by a candidate’s company-endorsed extra-curricular activities.
The rise of CSR gathered momentum after the 2008 financial crisis, some might say to represent capitalist institutions as caring, sharing bodies of philanthropic people. It was easy to be sceptical when you visited a company’s website to see staff members feeding children in the developing world. And oh yes, what does the firm do? – it makes money in the capital markets.
Even today, the sentimental advertising of a leading bank, with horses running across green fields with a gushing soundtrack, defiantly portrays the organisation as anything other than what it is. Bankers, for example, were seen as overpaid and over-indulged and therefore, a little charity involvement would do their public persona no harm at all. Actually, even prior to this shift, bankers were incredibly generous (and competitive) when it came to donations.
It could be that football is late to the game, but it seems clear that CSR is becoming part of a club’s standard offering, and players – undoubtedly coached by their clubs or entourage – are now eager to be seen as the good guys with a good heart. A whole sub-industry will now spring up, with image or CSR consultants homing in on young footballers who can enhance their reputation in one foul swoop by backing a charity with hard cash and their time. Clubs are very proactive on growing their “brand”, which is not just developed through on-pitch success but also on its community presence, sponsorship appeal and ability to generate money. Continue reading
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