Leaders on the Pitch and Off

In Harry Kane’s absence, few were surprised manager Gareth Southgate handed the England captaincy to Marcus Rashford for the narrow June 6 win over Romania in preparation for Euro 2020. Among the starting eleven, Rashford was the most senior player in terms of caps, yet to suggest he only became England’s youngest black captain because of his time in the squad ignores the qualities that make him an inspiration for teammates, fans, and young people alike.

Having captained Manchester United’s under-19 team in the UEFA Youth League at age 17, receiving praise from then manager Nicky Butt for his stewardship, Marcus is no stranger to leading on the pitch. His 2019 Champions League penalty that knocked the subsequent year’s finalists PSG out of the tournament exemplified a young man with a mental fortitude beyond his years. Given his attitude towards adversity—Marcus has candidly spoken about his disadvantaged upbringing—and his value to the club, it seems only a matter of time before he captains Manchester United’s senior side. It would be a fitting reward for a player who appears never to shirk his responsibilities as a role model and an example.

It is often one aspect of becoming a household name that footballers express their disfavour for. There’s little analogous that could prepare someone for having the eyes of the world and the expectations of fervent fans on them, and for those who emerge on the scene as they’re transitioning out of adolescence, the ordeal and scrutiny is even more testing. Making his debut at 17 and while still studying at school, Marcus Rashford was one of those players. In front of 58,000 supporters and at one of the biggest clubs in the world, there could have been few bigger stages, yet Marcus has recognised the power of a platform his size and is using it to lead the way for change.

He was well established in the Manchester United team when, in 2019, he launched a scheme for distributing essentials to homeless people. With FairShare and The Co-operative Group, Marcus continued tackling food poverty by using his voice to ensure children reliant on free school meals had access to food when Covid-19 forced schools shut. Part of what defines a great leader is a will to take the initiative and encourage others to join their cause, and in addition to his campaigning for FairShare, Rashford helped raise £20m for the food poverty charity. The commonality in the issues he focuses upon shows his determination to make a real difference in areas close to his heart and indicates sound decision making. He has also set-up a book club with Macmillan Publishers to promote reading among socio-economically disadvantaged children, and his efforts to ally with others to deliver results makes it clear Marcus knows how to motivate and inspire for the common good.

But for some, Marcus’s community and social work has been a stick with which to attack him, critics claiming he should stick to football. Ironically, the view is counter to another barb that suggests footballers earn far too much proportional to what they contribute to society, namely entertainment. The wider argument, in which Rashford’s philanthropy is only one part, is that modern footballers are too consumed by off-pitch distractions ranging from social media to fashion and brand deals. But in a unified world where the fan and player have never been closer, and there’s a greater focus on creating equality, the debate shouldn’t be whether sportsmen and women involve themselves in activities outside their profession, rather whether their participation and contribution sets a positive example.

However, suggesting footballers should always take the initiative is complicated. Mesut Özil’s condemnation of China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs was well received by human rights activists but not by his then club Arsenal, perhaps with its sponsorship deals in mind. Likewise, players taking a knee prior to matches over the past year have done so as a gesture of solidarity only to receive backlash from some disapproving fans. When contentious topics are involved, it’s impossible to please everyone, yet it’s a promising sign seeing players willing to put themselves in uncomfortable positions for the wellbeing of others. 

It’s then disappointing that some footballers neglect their status as role models, particularly in a time of hardship for their communities and with their actions so visible. Several high-profile players including Kyle Walker and Jack Grealish have broken Covid-related movement restrictions, while Dejan Lovren gave his support to a Croatian politician’s anti-vaccination message. All three have captained matches at some stage in their career, yet few would argue their behaviour befits someone in a leadership role.

The comment Kylian Mbappé gave when he donated his match and competition winner’s fees from the 2018 World Cup to a charity helping disabled children perhaps best demonstrates an attitude others should abide by.

“It does not change my life but changes theirs.” 

It’s a sentiment echoed in the actions of Juan Mata and his Common Goal initiative, which encourages players to donate 1% of their salary to charitable causes. Héctor Bellerín is a proponent of climate change awareness, owning the second largest stake in Forest Green Rovers, a vegan and environmentally sustainable club, Raheem Sterling has recently been awarded an MBE for his campaigning against racial inequality, and Megan Rapinoe has long been a champion of equal pay and LGBT rights.

No player can tackle every injustice, especially when many tough issues are deep-rooted in society, yet those at the forefront of proactive change recognise and embrace their position, leading the collective as they lead their teams.

*All articles written on fcnotalone.com express the views of our writers. Whilst these are mostly aligned with our beliefs, they remain the independent opinions of our contributors.*