The Guardian Footballer of the Year is an award given to a player who has done something remarkable, whether it’s overcoming adversity, helping others, or setting a sporting example by acting with exceptional honesty.
Marcus Rashford is reflecting on a rather extraordinary 2020 in which his words and deeds have made him the only option to be named The Guardian Footballer of the Year. The Manchester United and England striker has stood out on the pitch, as always, but the truth is that the day’s work no longer defines him. How can you do it when you’ve done more than anyone else to care for the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable children?
The Guardian asks about the influence of his mother, Mel, and in a few short sentences Rashford reveals the debt that he owes him. “She is everything,” he says. “Every positive characteristic you see in me is her. If I could describe her in three words, she would be strong, protective, undefeated. “
Rashford has been shaped by the love and support that Mel gave him and his four siblings when he raised them as a single mother in the South Manchester neighborhood of Wythenshawe. He worked long hours at three jobs and would sacrifice everything for his happiness. But Rashford also says that he can recall a look he sometimes saw on her as she struggled to put food on the table. It was one of anxiety, almost despair, and it has underpinned much of the campaign work that it has driven.
As a child, Rashford depended on breakfast clubs, school meals, and free snacks, while food banks and soup kitchens were part of his education as well; He has vivid memories of trips to Northern Moor to collect Christmas dinners each year. Mel would start cooking when he came home from work in the evenings, so at least Rashford could eat that meal at home. Others are not so lucky.
Rashford felt the concern of food poverty during school holidays, he knew what it was like to go hungry, and that is why, when the coronavirus pandemic took hold of him, his thoughts were for families in similar situations.
“I was concerned for kids like me if schools closed as part of the national closure,” says Rashford. “Without the breakfast club and free school meals, I had very little. What would my mother and I have done? I hurt my back last January and spent time with families during the early stages of my recovery through FareShare, and it was clear that they were so dependent on food stamps. [for school meals] like food banks. It was neither one nor the other. They needed both to survive. He knew what that fear felt like. I knew what fear looked like on my mother. I didn’t want that for any child or parent. “
FareShare is the charity that collects and distributes surplus food and Rashford partnered with it to help fill part of the shortfall in free meals when schools temporarily closed in late March. Initially, the goal was to raise £ 100,000, which would provide meals for 400,000 children. But Rashford also began to worry about what would happen on summer vacation.
“He read an article in The Guardian that said the coupon scheme was coming to an end,” said Kelly Hogarth, Rashford’s right-hand man at the Roc Nation talent agency. Rashford would go out of his way to pressure Boris Johnson and the government to do something about it.
Rashford’s success owes much to the tone he has taken on social media, where he has 21.2 million followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. He has tried to highlight social injustice, partly based on his own irrefutable experiences, but there has been no trace of anger or bitterness, no attack on politicians. On the contrary. He has called people to do that.
Rashford wanted unity, that the strength and the purity of the message be everything; no squabbling or overcoming across political lines or tribal loyalties to soccer to dilute or obscure. It has been about action, not aggrandizement.
Then there’s Rashford’s lack of remorse. It is about a person who, at the age of six, when he was first scouted by United, declared that nothing would stand in his way to fulfill his dream and play for them in the senior category.
Rashford has said that he tried to bring about change on child poverty a few years ago only so his efforts wouldn’t have an impact, in part because he didn’t know the full facts from all angles. So he learned more, connected more with the families involved, and pushed again.
Rashford has not been intimidated by the setbacks, one of which occurred in June when the government rejected his request to continue paying food stamps of £ 15 a week for some of the poorest families during the summer holidays. He returned with a passionate open letter to MPs, urging them to reconsider, and they did. Johnson called him personally to detail a new £ 120 million Covid summer food fund for 1.3 million students. That night, a banner was seen in Wythenshawe: Rashford 1 Boris 0.
There would be a second government U-turn in November, thanks to Rashford’s perfectly presented arguments, and another call from Johnson to explain it. This time he was referring to an extension of the voucher program for more school holidays, after it was initially rejected. Rashford 2 Boris 0. At this point, Rashford had an MBE from the Queen, while helping raise over £ 20 million for FareShare.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted all of this,” says Rashford. “But I feel like a lot of people would have learned a lot about themselves in 2020, especially about their strength. It’s been a strange year for all of us, but one in which we can really build to take nothing for granted. We open a lot of conversation and discover inequalities, we show compassion and empathy. That was really lovely to see.
“Interestingly, there are likely to be many personal positives that people can take on from 2020. Surviving this year with Covid impacting mental health and general health, loss and unemployment, is big enough. Everyone should pat themselves on the back for that, because it hasn’t been easy. “
Rashford has said he tries to keep his football separate from the season, but with the game the way it is and the fans the way they are, that’s easier said than done. There will always be those who want players to just play and see off-field interests as distractions.
Rashford, however, has given critics minimal ammunition by continuing to star for United. His 90Winning minute against Wolves last Tuesday meant he finished the calendar year with 20 goals in 42 appearances for the club. Rashford has only known total focus in his football. It is second nature to him. “For me, from a football perspective, I just want the fans to [the stadiums] safe and healthy, ”he adds simply.
And so Rashford goes on, packing up everything, giving it all. He was appointed as the leader of a task force on child food poverty in September, while in November he launched a book club aimed at giving children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity to embrace reading from an early age. Rashford started reading only at 17 because books weren’t something his family could budget for.
“There are about 400,000 children in the UK who have never had a book,” he says. “These are the same children that I fight for day after day and I wanted to allow them to escape anxiety and fear through reading. My books focus on acceptance and recognition, letting children know that many of us have been through what they are going through, but that there is a way to navigate it positively. Ultimately, I just want children to dream because sometimes dreams are all they have. I’m working on my first book now, which will be released in May. “
Rashford, just 23 years old, has a maturity that contradicts his years, but not what he has seen during them. It ends with a tip for kids who want to become footballers or dream of succeeding on any field. And also a fervently expressed hope.
“Just compete with yourself,” says Rashford. “Everyone’s journey is different. There is no one correct way to do it. Train hard and believe in yourself. My wish is that all children start life on an equal footing in the UK. That no child begins life 20 yards behind any other child and that our children are equipped with the tools they need to be successful in whatever they set their minds to. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism