By Simon Green
The idea of ex-professional footballers rising to the political elite may be currently implausible in the UK, as long as British players of the beautiful game continue to all be perceived as having a similar level of intellect as chants aimed at them would suggest, but in other areas of the globe this is more common than you might think.
Most recently, avid followers of football sites and social media pages will have seen that Kakha Kaladze, an ex-AC Milan defender with two Champions League medals to his name, was chosen by 51% of the electorate to become the mayor of Tbilsi, Georgia. Perhaps more surprisingly, the 39-year-old Kaladze is actually a relatively experienced politician, having held the position of Georgian Energy Minister for roughly 10 months.
He is not an isolated case though. Former Ballon d’Or winner George Weah of Liberia unsuccessfully ran in the 2005 presidential elections in his home country and is currently serving as a member of the Liberian Senate. Sol Campbell, the former Tottenham, Arsenal and England defender, launched a bid to stand as a Tory candidate for the London mayoral election in 2015 and even the legendary Pelé served as Brazil’s Sports Minister for 3 years in the late 1990’s.
So what is it about hanging up their boots that makes these multi-millionaire ex-athletes want to serve in political office? And why do people actually vote for them?
George Weah gives us a fairly good understanding as to why this is the case, when explaining to the BBC that “I feel I have been called to service, for the love of my country and for the love of my people. I want to become president of what I have already done to change my people’s lives and by being president I feel can do more.”
Not only does he feel a call to service, but he mentions what he has already done. Many of the footballing world’s stars like Ronaldo and Messi have foundations, which raise money for and awareness of causes close to their hearts, such as access to football as well as wealth inequality and living conditions in their home countries. So surely politics is a natural progression from such work?
Weah also gives us an essential clue into a footballer’s appeal to the electorate in saying “I have come from slums, roaming around the streets of Monrovia [Liberia’s capital], but today I’m history.” This demonstrates to us the essence of why footballers seem more trustworthy than a ‘highly educated’, professional politician. hey are relatable, aspirational and widely-respected figures. Relatable, in as far as football is the ‘working’ person’s game, a game that can be accessed and enjoyed by all. Aspirational, as these figures have grown up without immense privilege, and yet have still risen to the top of their field, allowing them to enjoy superstar lifestyles as a result. Widely-respected, as people remember their hard work, dedication and skill on the pitch.
By calling upon his childhood in the slums, Weah is indicating his status as a ‘man of the people’, who has overcome all the odds, reached the pinnacle of his field, and now wants to give back to people of a similar background to his.
In the current political trend of ‘us’ against ‘them’ when referring to the ruling political class, it seems that ex-footballers can bring people together in a time where political polarisation is at its highest point for decades.
So yes, we might not see Steven Gerrard on the steps of Number 10 in the immediate future, but if a reality star can win the hearts of millions of American voters and reach the highest office in the land through rejecting the established political elites, what’s stopping an ex-footballer doing it this side of The Pond?
Photograph: ||read|| via Flickr