Football and a new purpose: More than players, more than clubs

MARCUS RASHFORD is one of the faces of 2020, a young footballer who urged the UK government to help children with school meals at a time when low-income families were being severely challenged. Rashford has become just as relevant to 2020 as Greta Thunberg was in 2018 when she led climate change protests.

His elevation to symbol for social change also set a new benchmark for footballers worldwide, introducing purpose to their role as highly-paid sports people. Increasingly, over the past few years, some football clubs and their fans have attempted to attach themselves to causes, initiatives and movements that try to use the power of football to underpin social, and occasionally, political, action.

The World Football Summit’s opening session on November 23 focused on “How to embed purpose in the fabric of football”, and suggested the role of professional footballers is changing. Young players are now realising they are not just on a “career journey” but also a “purpose journey”. They now want to be associated with good causes, either collectively or individually, such as charities, foundations and movements. Some players, such as Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerín, have succeeded in appearing far more interesting and thoughtful than someone who merely kicks a ball around.

Some might say that this is long overdue: the corporate world has, over the past 15 years, pushed young people towards their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, as a means to improve the image of the firm and also to position their people as more rounded citizens. Indeed, some companies make it clear that careers are positively enhanced by a candidate’s company-endorsed extra-curricular activities. 

The rise of CSR gathered momentum after the 2008 financial crisis, some might say to represent capitalist institutions as caring, sharing bodies of philanthropic people. It was easy to be sceptical when you visited a company’s website to see staff members feeding children in the developing world. And oh yes, what does the firm do? – it makes money in the capital markets.

Even today, the sentimental advertising of a leading bank, with horses running across green fields with a gushing soundtrack, defiantly portrays the organisation as anything other than what it is. Bankers, for example, were seen as overpaid and over-indulged and therefore, a little charity involvement would do their public persona no harm at all. Actually, even prior to this shift, bankers were incredibly generous (and competitive) when it came to donations.

It could be that football is late to the game, but it seems clear that CSR is becoming part of a club’s standard offering, and players – undoubtedly coached by their clubs or entourage – are now eager to be seen as the good guys with a good heart. A whole sub-industry will now spring up, with image or CSR consultants homing in on young footballers who can enhance their reputation in one foul swoop by backing a charity with hard cash and their time. Clubs are very proactive on growing their “brand”, which is not just developed through on-pitch success but also on its community presence, sponsorship appeal and ability to generate money.

Football is in the same category as the financial industry in that huge personal wealth can be accumulated in a relatively short time frame. The demographics are very different, though, but footballers seem to get more criticism for working in a highly-paid industry, perhaps because they are more likely to be working class individuals who might have a limited education and possibly a deprived background. There has always been some resentment about people from poor origins earning big money, as if there is a huge moral obligation attached to it. However, football is an industry fuelled by the continued patronage by spectators, who rarely demonstrate their dissatisfaction even though it is in their gift to do so.

Football clubs have responded to the way society has moved on and younger generations have a different, more inclusive attitude. Corporate success isn’t just built around economic returns, but also societal returns. Consumers are attracted to companies with a good CSR record, therefore football clubs and their employees are invariably judged by the way they interact, and put back, into their locality. This is not just about charities, it is also about inclusiveness and a diverse football portfolio, support for the community and how they treat their fans.

What has effectively happened is that the football world, which is now an identifiable industry group, is now evolving to acquire the same attributes as other corporate sectors. Often seen as an insular business, influenced only by other football people, football is now being shaped by club owners and by people that bring experience from marketing, legal firms, finance, the media and professional services. On top of that, intermediaries proliferate the industry, taking their slice of the cash.

As a representative at Ligue 1 club Marseille said: “Football does not have a good image, we need to work on that.” The process has started, the game will look very different in five years time. Marcus Rashford will not be the last player to make headlines for his actions away from the football pitch and pretty soon, Barcelona will not be the only football institution to claim it is “more than a club”.

Photos: PA Images

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