Marcus Rashford's campaign for free meals prove that footballers can do more than just 'sticking to sports'

Srijandeep Das

"A man should not turn from the world, which is domestic, and social, and collective, and required action, regardless of his post. Attachment to the Ideal, without participation in the world of men, women, children, elderly and the non-binary, is the business of foxes and flowers who are ignorant of the grander part they play." - Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson was embarrassed into making a U-turn on a policy change, on Tuesday. A policy that would have left the nation's poorest families struggling to make ends meet to feed their children.

As per their latest census, around 20 percent of the population is below the poverty line, with eight million working-age adults, 4.5 million under-18s, and two million pensioners, with 1.56 million working-age adults unemployed. The collective figures have considerably spiked due to the onset of an economy-crippling pandemic, Covid-19.

The response of the incumbent right-wing government has been to suspend £15-a-week food vouchers to vulnerable parents over the summer due to the unprecedented nature of the times we are in. This was a move that many in the imminent opposition called unethical and counter-intuitive.

Yet, it was not an opposition leader or a policymaker that United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on-call with on Tuesday but Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. The footballer's hands-on, ground-level initiatives with FareShare's food distribution charity, and his consequent appeals have ultimately arm-twisted an establishment into serving society's most vulnerable.

The phrase "stick to football," thrown around so liberally by non-liberal fans, perhaps unbeknownst to them, is belittling the sport they love.

In its highest form of intervention, football can stop wars: A north-south tribal tension in September 2005 plunged the West African country of the Ivory Coast into Civil war. A cease-fire was called by the warlords October the same year in the country in anticipation of a historic event.

Ivorian captain Didier Drogba rallied his teammates for a spectacular World Cup qualifying win over Sudan guaranteeing their first-ever appearance in world's top competition. Shortly after, he held a press conference in the dressing room addressing the nation, arm in arm with his teammates from the scattering of his country: Men and women of Ivory Coast from the north, south, centre, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim.

"We promised you that the celebrations would unite the people - today we beg you on our knees. Please lay down your weapons and hold elections."

The nation erupted in jubilation, there were reports of the conga lines outside Ivorian embassies all over the world and impromptu dance parties across in Ivory Coast's war zones, rifles forming bonfires, and an election was held in a fortnight's time.

Football signifies many abstract concepts: a proxy religion for atheists, succour for the socially-bereaved, a pause of sigh for the war-torn, rope-ladder for poverty-stricken aspirants and escapism for the weary. For many philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Camus and Swami Vivekananda, football has hidden manifestos for societal conduct and spirituality through the means of becoming more than the sum of our parts.

Twenty-two-year-old Marcus Rashford is one such young black man, for whom it was most of those things. He has fully realised the depth and the width of that famous Camus quote, "Everything I know about morality and the obligations of the human race, I owe it to football." Now it will never sound overblown or exaggerated owning to the bar that has been set as of Tuesday when a footballer contrived to feed millions of hungry mouths.

Due to Rashford's intervention, Prime Minister caving in has announced a £120m "COVID summer food fund" for 1.3 million students in the UK.

For context: More than 30 percent of primary school children rely on/and are eligible for claiming free school meals. In senior-secondary, parts of Merseyside (36 percent) and London (37 percent) have the highest percentage of children sustaining themselves on free meals program in the UK. Free meals program runs were not just an agent of nourishment, but an incentive for children to turn up for their education, and for them to aspire to be more than simply the sum of their situations. And suddenly, without warning, and an entire demographic found itself without a basic human right; that was until Marcus Rashford started toeing the line, while others in more privileged and impactful positions than him, offered little but lip-service.

Marcus Rashford spoke to the BBC to explain his emotional investment prior to the 'U-turn': "I remember us going to a shop called Pound World, and everything was under a pound, and we'd sort of schedule out the week. So, we'd get seven yoghurts and we'd have one yogurt a day and so on.

"What families are going through now, I once had to go through that same system. It's very difficult to ever find a way out. But now because f the position that I'm in, it's important for me to be helping people that are struggling.

I had a single mother raising a family of 5 kids on her own, she did the best she could. Some days there was food on the table, the other days we'd understand.

"There are families out there with four, five kids, for whom it is unfeasible for them to take control of the situation. This is all going on at a time when kids should be concentrating on school-work, you know? It's crazy to think that there is still a need for us to make a case for feeding these kids sat in 2020. I have helped my family, and now since that's done, it's my turn to help the families that need my help the most. That's why I wrote that letter."

The letter in question is a two-page emotive, clear, concise appeal uploaded on Twitter. It pleaded for empathy: "Understand this €" without the kindness and generosity of the community around me, there wouldn't be the Marcus Rashford you see today: A 22-year-old Black man lucky enough to make a career playing the game I love... The system was not built for families like mine to succeed no matter how many shifts my mum worked. We relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of our neighbours and coaches."

He called out the government's apathy for the children who had to skip school meals on the account of their families having to choose their children's health over starvation in the middle of a pandemic. For a parent having to make a choice between the two, is a cruelty beyond any. Eventually, parents didn't even have an option as all schools nationwide were eventually shut.

Rashford asks in the letter: "As their stomachs grumble, I wonder if those children will ever be proud enough of their country to pull on the national team shirt and sing the national anthem."

Echoing the sentiments of one of America's founding fathers of philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcus Rashfords appeals to the people with power and good intentions but undefined actions: "It's one thing thinking about it, but if you don't get that message out to people higher up who can possibly change the way things are going, there's no point having those thoughts whilst sat in your home."

The stark reality of the situation is that it could have truly gone either way for him as 45 percent of ethnic minorities in the UK live below the poverty line. A minimum of 200,000 children would have starved had it not been for a footballer's voice and his drive.

There seems to be a paradigm shift for the better in football. Rashford's club rival, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, has been the forefront of the raising of collective consciousness in the UK with the 'Players Together' Movement that collects and distributes fund effectively to the National Health Service, doctors and caregivers who are risking their lives in the COVID pandemic.

His team-mate Sadio Mane's erected hospital in his native village of Bambali in Senegal equipped to the t with state-of-art facilities to combat the threat of COVID and other Afrocentric diseases.

Former Manchester United winger, Wilfried Zaha offering free housing in the form of 50 apartments to NHS workers, is another charitable young man.

All these footballers are shaming people like Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock (who recently, and infamously taunted footballers to take pay cut in order to help out) with their distinguished conduct, with much more immediacy and competence that the current government have.

Rashford's actions have added to social intelligence and sensibility in today's football conversation and raised the bar to a level not thought of. His exhibition of celebrity power encourages footballers, sportsperson to make a difference fighting for the causes they believe in.

More than that, it has guaranteed that out of those millions of once-starving mouths, we will hear the strengthened discourse and dialogue of a legion of future Rashfords-to-be. A world where footballers are more than a shirt number, where they are never asked to shut up and dribble. And that's a wonderful world to forward to.

Also See: Premier League: British PM Boris Johnson makes u-turn on free meal program after Marcus Rashford's open letter

Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford wants UK government to continue kids' food vouchers

Premier League: Manchester United have massive top-four opportunity when season resumes, says Dimitar Berbatov

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