Why a new generation of footballers are taking a positive stand on issues dividing society

Why a new generation of footballers are taking a positive stand on issues dividing society

“Because out there, we are all the same time.” The end line from UEFA’s Equal Qame campaign advert is supposedly the reason that we all love football. We are shown players from all aspects of life, both professional and amateur, male and female. UEFA’s advert would have us all believe that football is truly a game for everybody. 

The reality, regrettably, is much different. Racism, homophobia and sexism remain prevalent in our game and there appears, at least from the outside, to be an unwillingness to truly clamp down on these problems from those who run the game. However, the ills that plague football are not isolated within sport – they are merely a reflection of the society we live in. Football, and sport in general, simply serves to highlight the feelings of society, often exacerbated by social media anonymity or group mentality when engaged with fellow fans. 

As politicians such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage dominate our newsfeeds, spreading their messages of division and hate, it has perhaps come time for politics to be brought into sport, with high-profile players taking a moral stand against discrimination. There is, seemingly, a greater willingness for players to tackle these issues head-on.

The Women’s World Cup, currently being held in France, has received a higher degree of interest than previous iterations, showing that, despite the disagreement of some men on Twitter, there is indeed an appetite for the women’s game. Leading up to the tournament, a considerable amount of media attention was aimed at the inaugural Ballon d’Or Féminin winner, Ada Hegerberg and her prolonged decision to not play for Norway, a stance which she has taken since her country’s exit from the European Championship back in 2017.

It is rare that one of the dominating headlines of a major international tournament focuses upon those not in attendance, but such is the profile of Hegerberg and the reasoning behind her choice to step aside from playing for her country that it was impossible to avoid. 

Exiting the 2017 European Championship without a single point or goal, Hegerberg has stated she was left “mentally broken” by her experiences when playing for the national team, describing the time as “deeply depressing”. If it was just for her own health that she stopped playing for Norway, it would be totally understandable, but her complaints run a deeper.

For Hegerberg, the inequality that existed within the Norwegian Football Federation’s (NFF) treatment of the men’s and women’s game was a cause worth fighting against. Working conditions, pay, grassroots involvement, marketing: there were a whole host of reasons that have been mentioned and Hegerberg doesn’t look likely to play again until the NFF is willing to tackle these issues head-on. 

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Norwegian football made headlines when they announced that they would be paying their male and female footballers equally moving forward, but this was pushed forward by the male players agreeing to take a pay cut to close the gap between the two. There has been little development in helping progress the game, despite the historic success of the women’s team in comparison to the men’s. 

It’s not just Hegerberg who is protesting the gender inequalities within football. The USWNT is currently in the midst of a lawsuit against US Soccer for “institutionalised gender discrimination”. The group of players are seeking equal pay with their male counterparts, a reasonable request since they are doing the exact same job and with a far greater degree of success. 

These examples are specifically aimed at challenging the long-standing order that football has entrenched itself within, but they will have ramifications that will affect the wider issue of gender inequality in society. With high-profile women such as Hegerberg, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe using their position to challenge the status quo, they are setting an example for the next generation of woman that there is hope for an equal future, both within football and society at-large. 

Prior to the beginning of this summer of international football, the BBC aired a documentary featuring Danny Rose, Jermaine Jenas, Peter Crouch, Thierry Henry, Gareth Southgate and Prince William discussing their battles with mental health issues. The stories were harrowing and offered a perspective rarely seen in the lives of those in the spotlight. The show was bold and enlightening and was yet another step into normalising the topic of mental health within football. 

Prior to the beginning of the men’s World Cup last summer, Tottenham defender Rose gave an insightful interview into his battles with depression, brought about by his lengthy recovery from a knee injury coupled with a series of personal tragedies. For a player at the height of his professional career – named in the national squad for a World Cup – to talk so openly about the struggles that he faced was a much-needed step forward. It was a stark reminder that depression does not discriminate against those with fame and fortune, and the BBC documentary was a revealing and necessary step forward. 

Rose’s interview came roughly a year after Aaron Lennon was detained by police under the Mental Health Act. Lennon’s tale is an all-too-familiar one of someone suffering and feeling like there’s nowhere to turn. It is, therefore, no real surprise that suicide remains the biggest killer of men aged between 15 and 35 in the UK – around three-quarters of suicide victims are male. 

There remains a social stigma still attached to discussing mental health, especially amongst men. It is viewed as an uncomfortable, taboo subject, one that is so loaded that it’s best avoided. Fortunately, both Lennon and Rose were able to find the treatment that they needed but that isn’t the case elsewhere, and even the lessons we were supposed to have learned after the tragic suicide of Gary Speed were soon forgotten.

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Admitting to struggling with mental health issues is never an easy option, especially in the hyper-masculinised world of football, but Rose’s willingness to open up about his difficulties is helping change the perspective regarding mental health in football.

The English club season that has just passed us, whilst possessing some outstanding football, will also be remembered for the unsavoury scenes witnessed at separate incidents at the Emirates Stadium and Stamford Bridge. First, during the north London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham, a fan reacted to Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng’s opener by throwing a banana peel at him; a hark back to the infamous John Barnes incident at Goodison Park. The second event, coming just a week later, saw Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling racially abused by fans in the Chelsea crowd. 

The Sterling incident gained a greater level of coverage in the English press, continuing the trend of Sterling often taking centre stage in the football section of leading news publications. Despite becoming one of the key players for both England and City, the media headlines surrounding him primarily focused on aspects of his life away off the pitch, largely with racial undertones and negativity.

After the incident at Stamford Bridge, Sterling’s statement tackled the problem with the representation of black footballers in the media head-on. His response highlighted the difference in the coverage of two of his young Manchester City teammates after they had purchased a house. Both articles were taken from the Daily Mail’s website, one talking about Tosin Adarabioyo and the other Phil Foden. Whereas the headline about Foden described him as having spent £2m on a new house for his mother, Adarabioyo’s headline focuses on him “splashing out on a mansion on market for £2.25m despite having never started a Premier League match”.

It is worth noting that Foden, at the time of the article being printed, had made just eight appearances in the league, all coming from the bench. Although Adarabioyo had yet to experience Premier League football, they had both made two starts and one substitute appearance in the Champions League. The only real difference in the stories was the fact that one of the youngsters was black and the other was white. 

These incidents aren’t new, nor is the return of such open racism to the stands in football. They have been on the terraces and in the streets since the game began, as they have in society – they have just been reported less. As Barnes explained when talking about the banana skin thrown at Aubameyang: “It didn’t surprise me because black people go through invisible banana skins being thrown at them and unspoken racial abuse every day of their lives.

“Those days haven’t gone. They have gone in terms of the overt racism. In many respects, I much prefer the overt racism now to the racism we went through in the last ten years whereby we are being told that it doesn’t exist so, therefore, let’s get on with it. I knew that not to be true. In many respects, I’m glad it happened because it will bring home to people that we have still got a long way to go and it is still alive and kicking.”

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Racism still very much plagues our society, even more so in the political landscape of Trump, Farage and the rise of the alt-right, and remains one of the key issues that football needs to address in order to make the game accessible to all. With the response of Sterling in the face of the abuse and his outright challenge to the media to think more carefully and openly about the image they are portraying of young black athletes, there is perhaps hope that some aspects will change. 

Whilst social media is allowing these footballers to express themselves, it has also given a voice, an anonymous one, to those wishing to shout abuse. It can often get to the point where players don’t wish to share their lives, as Héctor Bellerín found out. After growing his hair long, combined with his unique fashion choices, Bellerín gave an interview with The Times discussing how he has received homophobic abuse across social media and from the stands, often calling him a “lesbian” because he has long hair. 

Football has long had a problem with images of toxic masculinity. Footballers are supposed to be strong men who only care about winning games. Bellerín, and other young players, subvert the norm of what we have been conditioned to believe being “masculine” is. Roy Keane’s anger-filled reaction to the fact that Jesse Lingard dares to spend time promoting a fashion brand highlights the old-school beliefs still prevalent. 

Stonewall, an LGBTQ equality group in Britain, published statistics suggesting that 18-24 year-olds are twice as likely as other groups to say they would be embarrassed if their favourite player came out as gay and that homophobic language would be just a “bit of banter.” Bellerín’s interview was an open discussion about the issues facing anyone who fails to conform to the norm of what we have been told football fans are, and his statement about an openly gay footballer not being possible until the culture changes feels heartbreakingly true. 

Bellerín, once again, was brave enough to tackle a key issue facing society when he tweeted about the recent decision in Alabama to criminalise abortion, regardless of timing or circumstance. His response was one which we should all take heed off in that, regardless of if the issue at hand affects us directly – a young Spanish man living in London is unlikely to feel the direct effects of the law change in an American state – we should all be striving towards achieving equality in every aspect of life and we should not be afraid to speak out.

There isn’t an easy solution to helping change the model of masculinity that is engrained within football, but more young men like Bellerín willing to stand up is a positive step forward. Football is emblematic of our society, and the ills that still ruin the culture we live in will remain problematic within football. As much as we like to believe that football is an escape from the poisonous reality of politics, it simply is not the case, and there needs to be a greater acknowledgement from within the game. 

The time to keep politics out of sport has long since passed; it never should have even existed. The willingness of those high-profile footballers to use their platform to help create a world built on respect and equality is not new, but there needs to be a greater appreciation of those taking a stand. Careers may be ruined, transfers may not happen, but ultimately, the best legacy someone living in the media spotlight can leave is having tried to create a better world for those to come next. And just as football mirrors society, it’s the best we can all strive for too.

By Michael Gallwey @michael95angelo

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