Sports

How Premier League footballers got woke

Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling has called out newspapers for helping to fuel racism on the terraces

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“Iwanted to see if anyone from our industry would speak out about the [Alabama] abortion bill, but I guess people are too scared. This isn’t just an issue for women, it’s one for every human being. We fight for equality and this is something men should fight for and not hide away from.”

That’s not a politician, a columnist, or a “progressive lovey” with an Oscar on their bedside table. Those are the words of 24-year-old Arsenal footballer Héctor Bellerín – to his 1.65m followers on Twitter.

It may seem like a small step, but for years footballers kept their views hidden: they certainly weren’t opining on human rights. Any charity work was confined to controversy-free causes, such as the annual trip to a children’s hospital. It was a chore that clubs utilised to generate positive PR. Yet today Bellerín is just the latest in an ever-increasing list of players speaking out on fraught political debates. From the Tottenham midfielder Eric Dier expressing his support for remain, to Danny Rose opening up about his struggles with mental health, and Raheem Sterling’s bold retort to racists – young stars are showing they have interests far beyond PlayStation and nights at Mahiki. What changed?

“We are just normal people,” says the Nottingham Forest winger Joe Lolley. “We express our opinions the same way actors, authors, factory workers and single mothers are all inclined to do.” He credits some of the increase to social media – “we’re given a platform to express our views” – but the former England and Chelsea defender Graeme Le Saux doesn’t believe it’s quite that simple. “There’s not one thing that’s been a catalyst for change,” he says. “You have to look at society as a whole, the work that is being done around diversity, equality, respecting individuals – football has benefited from that. We’ve moved away from this macho image of what it is to be a man, the idea that you shouldn’t show emotion or ‘weakness’.” The support Rose was given by both club and country is testament to that, as is the positive reaction to the Watford striker Troy Deeney’s confession of his own struggles.

Le Saux could have done with that sort of support when he started out as a young pro. “People used to plough on through the emotional turmoil for fear of appearing weak,” he says. “The dressing room in my era was tough. I learned very quickly to keep my personal life to myself at Chelsea.” Even the biggest events of his life were kept hidden so he could maintain the image that he felt was required. “I didn’t tell people about my mother’s death, and I was 13 at the time, because I thought people would see it as a weakness and might use it as a way to have a dig at me.”

Of course, some never had the option to hide away. If the first professional black players weren’t addressing issues of racism head on in quite the same way that Sterling did when he called out newspapers for helping to fuel racism on the terraces, their very presence was a political statement.

Eric Dier of Tottenham tweeted his support for a people’s vote.
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Eric Dier of Tottenham tweeted his support for a people’s vote. Photograph: James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images

In 1978, Instagram didn’t exist. If Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis – the trio of black West Bromwich Albion stars affectionally known as the Three Degrees – had reacted to the monkey chants from the terraces by lambasting the media for “fuelling racism”, like Sterling, it would not have been applauded. “It’s important to look at what stopped footballers from speaking out in previous eras,” says football and politics writer Nooruddean Choudry. “Despite the adulation and fame they received, they didn’t really have any power. That was all in the boardrooms. So if they did say something outspoken or contentious, they risked everything. The balance has shifted now. Modern footballers have more power, and there’s less risk. They can say how they feel without it jeopardising their livelihood or their dreams.”

But the sight of three black players on the same side for the first time still sent a message. As Batson said when the trio were honoured with a statue in 2012: “We didn’t go out of our way to be role models, it’s something that happened naturally … It’s a recognition of black players from my era who had to put up with a lot more than the current players have to.” Racism on the stands may have roared back into the headlines last season – a banana thrown at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang by Spurs fans as they played at Arsenal, or the Muslim Liverpool player Mo Salah being called a “bomber” by Chelsea supporters – but it would be wrong to say that things haven’t dramatically improved since the 1970s, and the bravery of those pioneering pros played a huge part in that.

A recent study from Stanford University found that anti-Muslim hate crimes had dropped by 18.9% in Liverpool since Salah joined the club, and Islamophobic tweets from the club’s fans halved compared with other teams. Just as with the black players of the past, Salah didn’t need to say anything to cause positive change: just by being there he has made people question their prejudices.

That was on display again recently when Manchester City’s Catalan manager, Pep Guardiola, was asked about the prospect of being the first side to win a historic domestic treble. He was quick to point out that was only true of the men’s game: “The women, they have already done it.” Acknowledging that the women’s game exists and lauding its triumphs should not be radical, but it says something about the low expectations we have of those involved in football that he was quickly praised for it. “I thought it was magnificent and utter class,” says the Juventus and England forward Lianne Sanderson.

The level of respect women’s football is afforded may still be woeful – although the English team’s success at this summer’s World Cup shifted that – but in many ways it is already decades ahead. While the men’s top flight still waits for an openly gay player, for the women it’s commonplace and empowering, as stories such as that of Sweden’s Magda Eriksson and Denmark’s Pernille Harder attest. “I think that it feels safer to do so, you know 100% you will feel supported and protected,” says Sanderson. “In the men’s game, players being racially abused have not had enough protection, so how can we be sure that players that come out as gay will be protected?”

Hector Bellerin of Arsenal.
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‘This isn’t just an issue for women, it’s one for every human being.’ Hector Bellerin of Arsenal. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Footballers are heroes to hundreds of thousands of young people and by talking about abortion, race or LGBT issues, they can frame the debate. It’s a power that they’re well aware of. “Since footballers have such a large social media presence, we can shape the conversation as much as you do,” Deeney told this paper. And that’s ignoring their financial might – it has been suggested that an investment by former Arsenal, Milan and Crystal Palace player, Mathieu Flamini, in a biochemical firm could help to save the planet.

Flamini recognises, and welcomes, the power players have to “influence the next generation”. It’s something that Lolley, with his regular interventions on politics, is well aware of. “Those with such high standing in the game have a chance to push for change. It gets people talking about major issues. And it’s then a snowball effect, once a few are able to come out and talk comfortably, it gives the freedom for others to voice their opinions that they were probably too scared to do before.”

None of this is to say that footballers of the past never expressed progressive political positions. “There have always been socially conscious footballers, from Shankly and Sócrates to Boban and Cantona, but it was generally when they were established in their careers,” says Choudry. The former Barcelona defender Oleguer was well known for his leftwing, pro-Catalan independence views – and was even dropped by a sponsor for an article he wrote in 2007 questioning the independence of the Spanish judicial system. In the UK, Robbie Fowler was fined by Uefa, European football’s governing body, in 1997 for expressing his support for the Liverpool dockers on a T-shirt when celebrating a goal. Political demonstrations were, and are, outlawed on the pitch. “Players have always had an opinion,” says Sanderson. “It depends if the club would let you express it. That’s why a lot of them sound robotic.”

But that wasn’t the only time Fowler was fined for behaviour on the pitch. The striker also perpetrated one of the most notorious incidents of homophobic abuse in football, when he taunted Le Saux in 1999 by bending over and gesturing to his rear end. Fowler took years to properly apologise, even though they had to share a dressing room for England. “I did not want a public apology, just a private word would do,” Le Saux wrote in 2007. “But he refused. He said that he had done nothing wrong, that it was just a bit of a laugh.”

And that’s the thing. Footballers are people, as complex and capable of contradiction as anybody else in society. Someone can express welcome working-class solidarity while at the same time holding unpleasant, bigoted views. “It’s telling that Nike backed Colin Kaepernick and amplified his stance,” says Choudry about the American footballer’s on-field protests at the treatment of minorities in the US. “In a way, that legitimises the voices of young athletes who aren’t willing to remain silent on things that matter to them.”

“Difference is celebrated now,” says Le Saux. “Players have individual needs, whether it be recovery drinks, gym programmes or politics. Until you are really yourself, you can’t be the best version of you. The work of a club becomes not about sculpting the best footballer, but the best person. Whether they leave the game at 15 or 35, it’s how they then contribute to society on which a club can be judged.”

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