Footballers have long been pigeonholed as self-serving and vacuous, with no real connection to the fans who flock to watch them every week and spend their time advertising their latest purchase or haircut on social media. There are a few, however, who actually have something to say. Hector Bellerin recently gave a series of engaging interviews and spoke of such topics as mental health and sexuality, he expressed his interest in environmental issues and cutting down on the use of plastics.
He also discussed the environment which operates around football and rightly expressed a concern that the closed and sometimes oppressive macho atmosphere doesn’t allow footballers to be open about personal issues such as depression and sexuality. Not one to merely raise a lot of negative issues, he spoke candidly about the huge chance footballers have to gear change and that their influence and popularity should be used in a positive way to highlight any number of issues such as debt and substance misuse.
Bellerin isn’t the first footballer to speak up about social matters. Brazilian midfield genius, Sócrates, was an outspoken political activist in Brazil, he spoke out against the military-ruled government and supported democratic elections in the country. The key here is that Sócrates’ popularity among the people in Brazil helped gain support for these causes. Even though he was a world-famous player many of the Brazilian people felt they could still relate to him and this helped him get his message across. As we shall see, this is massively important in raising awareness at present.
Other left-leaning former professional footballers to throw their weight behind mainly political causes include Cristiano Lucarelli and Diego Maradona and both have heavily supported Communist views surrounding education, healthcare and finance.
In the interests of balance, one should also mention the right-wing views expressed by many, including Italian pair, Paolo Di Canio and Christian Abbiati. Their views on immigration, social integration and patriotism, whatever your opinion of them, are welcome, however one cannot imagine they are as all-inclusive as those expressed by Lilian Thuram; a long-time campaigner for the rights of immigrants in France.
Using the media spotlight to highlight social issues isn’t just reserved for football. In 2016, NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, chose to kneel during the playing of the United States national anthem in protest against racial inequality in the US. His protest caused a division of opinions, both for and against his actions which included unfavourable comments from President Trump.
Kaepernick’s actions were replicated by many of his peers in the NFL as well as across other sports in the US. Kaepernick should be given huge credit for his stance, although he is without a team after choosing to leave the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 and many feel his views and the controversy it created may well have cost him a chance with another team in the NFL. For his efforts in raising awareness, and do not forget this is exactly what he has created, Kaepernick was the recipient of the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience award in 2018.
Bellerin, of course, is completely correct. Footballers are heavily influential. Many children and young adults are immersed in the game, from TV and social media to console games, and a lot see those superstar players as role models, whether for good or bad. Social media, in particular, is readily accessible and makes it much easier for footballers to get their message across. More recently we have seen a rise in footballers using social media, particularly Twitter, to lend their weight to a particular cause.
One heart-warming example is that of former Wales and Everton goalkeeper, Neville Southall. Southall is a great example of using his social media influence to spotlight some very worthy causes. Southall has taken the unprecedented step of opening up his Twitter account and allowing people with stories about social issues to take over and promote their cause to a wider audience. The idea has been a magnificent success and Southall deserves a lot of credit for helping to highlight issues such as forced marriage and eating disorders, which ordinarily will not have received much attention.
Southall’s use of social media is the exception though and the problem most footballers encounter is that their lifestyle and personas are just so far removed from that of everyday people. True, they have families, worries and concerns, like everyone else, but the life of a modern footballer isn’t anything like it used to be. They’re no longer part of the local community, their families and children do not mix with others in their area. It’s fairly obvious the vast amounts of money in the game has contributed towards this, so when a footballer highlights mental health awareness, for example, the public is often dismissive of their intentions or simply do not care.
Players such as Antonio Cassano and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are fine examples of players often using their position for self-gain. One shouldn’t be derisive of their actions as they can choose to spend their time as they wish, but it muddies the water when some players genuinely have important opinions to raise. Cassano, never one to sit on the fence when given the opportunity to promote himself, was fined by UEFA in 2012 after stating his preference for there to be no gay players in the Italian national team.
The negative public perception is why it is vital that the modern footballer, who has a lot more spare time than the majority of full-time workers, becomes a face and a presence in the community. Representing international charities such as UNICEF and Save the Children, as Gheorghe Hagi, Slaven Bilić, Edin Džeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan do, is a very worthwhile use of their time, but their campaigns are usually focused on far-away poorer countries or countries experiencing war or political unrest and this leads to a somewhat ambivalent attitude domestically towards the good work which is being done across the world. Domestic social issues such as the use of food banks and homelessness are massive in the UK and by working with the authorities, footballers can not only increase awareness but also make themselves more relatable to the average football fan by immersing themselves in the issues that many UK families experience every day.
Several clubs have their own foundations that assist with local projects but greater publicity is essential to help increase the bond between fans and players. One such example is Kevin Davies’ Kids of Bolton initiative. It was founded by the former Bolton Wanderers player to help underprivileged children in the Bolton area. Their aim is to promote self-esteem, confidence and discipline to help the children grow up to be responsible and independent adults. Projects such as this are an important way to build a successful club/community rapport.
In the long term, this approach is going to help create a more human, public-spirited and likeable persona, one which is a million miles away from the mega-rich, fast-living, boorish oafs which modern footballers are perceived to be. A win/win for everyone involved, if you will. By working towards this aim, the credibility given to the intentions of footballers speaking about social issues rises beyond recognition.
The Neville Southall-style of speaking up shows that social media can be put to good use and is a vital tool to help increase awareness. In the era of an ever-widening gap between fans and players, all involved should be helping make the voices of those in need of being heard much louder than they are right now. The players have a huge responsibility towards their profession and the people they seek to inspire, and they must use their moment in the spotlight to positively raise awareness and ultimately encourage change.