By James Reid
As football returned in the summer after a three-month hiatus due to lockdown, many things were different. There were no fans, five substitutes could be used instead of the usual three, and there would be regular breaks for drinks.
Alongside these changes was another. Before every match, players and officials were kneeling in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Sky Sports pundits wore pin badges supporting the movement, while discussions on racism in football were more public and open.
This is not to say that this fixed the problem of systemic racism, of course it didn’t. Yet it once again showed the power of football as a political force.
There were many that argued that politics should be kept out of football, that it was not the place to discuss such issues, that we should not be listening to footballers, of all people, on serious issues such as racism. This misses the point.
Football is so deeply intertwined with politics that it simply cannot ignore it. It always has been. Football is not something that has recently been politicised. It has repeatedly been the venue at which political and social issues are played out, for better or worse.
In the 1970s and 80s, football grounds were one of the most overt examples of the racism that still festered in British society. The growth of hooliganism, too, reflected a certain disaffected section of society.
The profound changes to football in the 1990s with the rise of of the Premier League and the commercialisation of football, along with the changing clientele of matches was, and still is, a reflection of the growth of neoliberalism under Thatcher that is yet to be rolled back.
Football’s popularity makes it a reflection of society and its problems in a way that few other institutions do. This popularity has made it a potentially strong voice for change, in the way saw with Black Lives Matter.
The latest use of this voice has been by Marcus Rashford in support of free school meals. The 23-year-old forward has been extremely outspoken in his opposition to government plans not to extend provision into school holidays.
Rashford’s campaign has generally been met with strong support, with hundreds of businesses offering to plug the gap left by the government. Yet there were still those who lamented Rashford, who grew up on free school meals. The common refrains of sticking to football and keeping politics out of football were once again rolled out.
But why should Rashford simply stick to football? He is a member of society with political opinions just like any other. Moreover, football has given him a platform seldom afforded to people like him. How many young black men have such a voice and platform other than footballers such as Rashford and England teammate Raheem Sterling? Is it not their responsibility to use it to represent issues that matter to them, and to a group that is too often underrepresented in political debate?
Those who argue for politics to be kept out of football only do so on issues that they want to ignore. Football’s appeal means that an issue it takes up is thrust into the public spotlight. Most of the time, there is seemingly little issue with this. Football regularly supports campaigns around prostate cancer, men’s mental health, and the rainbow laces campaign which seeks for a more LGBT inclusive sport.
Every year, a minute’s silence is held before the set of matches closest to Remembrance Day and every club’s shirts adorn poppies. Most people agree this is the right thing to do, but it is still political. Irish footballer James McClean’s refusal to wear a poppy is regularly greeted with ire from fans. But it underlines the very political nature of wearing poppies. Politics really is everywhere in football.
It seems that those who wish for football to be apolitical wish for a game that simply does not exist. By its very nature, football has particular political currents. Most clubs are in predominantly working-class areas, with historically working-class fanbases. The players are often from poorer backgrounds too. In the modern game, black players make up a significant percentage of the work force in way that is seldom seen anywhere else in society. Football’s past and present are deeply political. Its future will be too.
Image: Дмитрий Голубович via Creative Commons