It is not unusual for a footballer to score a hattrick, even on a stage as grand as the Champions League. Although to score three times in 16 minutes is, admittedly, special. That Marcus Rashford achieved such a feat in the same week he, once again, caused turmoil for the UK government is extraordinary.
The Manchester United striker had been told to stick to football by his detractors, instead of trying to alleviate child hunger in England.
On a drizzly Wednesday evening in Manchester, where he came off the substitutes’ bench to score a wonderful hattrick in United’s 5-0 win over RB Leipzig, the 22-year-old proved he could do both: play football brilliantly while also, off the pitch, help hungry children.
His match-winning exploits came on the same day his petition calling for children from poor families in England to get free meals during school holidays reached over a million signatures. The UK government, however, says it has put in place effective measures to support families.
After the game, Rashford tweeted: “3 goals, 16 minutes, 1,030,000 signatures. Can’t stop smiling, I’ve waited a long time for that. Just wish the fans were in to experience it with me.”
The Englishman has done what many thought impossible in a country bitterly divided by Brexit and Covid-19: he’s created some sort of consensus, or as much solidarity as could be hoped for in these polarized times. The usually tribal world of English football has even come together to support the striker.
Leeds United – traditionally fierce rivals of near neighbors United – donated thousands of pounds this week to Rashford’s campaign, pledging to stand “united” to help feed vulnerable children.
Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool, another club in the north of England with an intense rivalry with Rashford’s team, described the player’s campaign as “absolutely incredible.”
“He plays for United, which makes it really tricky,” Klopp told reporters this week. “But in these moments we are, as footballers and as human beings, always united.”
Many other football clubs, as well as teams of other sports, including England Rugby, have come out in support of his End Child Food Poverty campaign
Following the Conservative government’s rejection last week of the opposition Labour Party’s motion to extend free school meals over the school holidays in England to Easter 2021, Rashford’s grassroots campaign attracted a groundswell of support.
A growing number of businesses and local councils – including Conservative-led local authorities – across the country are now offering food parcels or meal vouchers.
That is not to say Rashford is not without his critics.
Conservative lawmaker Mark Jenkinson said of the footballer that “pretending, to score political points, helps no one,” while James Cartlidge – banned from a pub and restaurant in his constituency for voting against extending the provision of free school meals, according to the Daily Mail – said “schools aren’t responsible for feeding pupils outside term time.”
The United player has also been accused of “virtue signaling,” to which Rashford’s response was to post a tweet on Wednesday which has so far received over 80,000 likes: “On a serious note though, what is virtue signalling?”
It has been quite the year for the England international. He has led UK news bulletins, dominated newspaper headlines and been awarded an MBE in Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday honors list for his work in tackling food poverty.
As one of England’s most talented players, Rashford has had the ability to influence others for a number of years, ever since he scored on his United debut in 2016 to become an instant hero, but during this troubled year his voice has never been louder.
A man with nearly four million Twitter followers, nine million on Instagram and 6.5 million on Facebook has sway, and in recent months Rashford has used his effectively, retweeting support from cafes, pubs and restaurants across the country in a timeline which now provides live updates of his campaign.
In June, by eloquently and calmly putting forward his case for free school meals to be provided to the poorest families in England over the summer school holidays, Rashford forced the government into a U-turn. Over a million children benefited.
A Manchester-born son of a single mother who grew up in one of the more deprived areas of the city, Rashford has raised millions in donations alongside food charity FareShare during the pandemic.
The youngest of five children, he has spoken of his own experience of food poverty, saying he relied on free school meals and “the kind actions of neighbors and coaches.”
“The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked,” he wrote in an open letter to UK lawmakers in June.
Rashford has proved himself a leader; a player with drive and a social conscience. A self-made multimillionaire who has used his profile to make a difference during a once-in-a-generation pandemic which has brought heartache and hardship on many.
This is a boyhood United fan who had hardly put a foot wrong since making his debut for his hometown club – not only did he score on his debut, he also found the net in his first EPL outing, his first Manchester derby and first Champions League match.
Perhaps none among the powers that be appreciate the strength of will it takes for a boy from a low-income family to succeed in such a competitive industry, especially at one of the world’s most successful clubs. He is not one to easily give up, especially on a matter so close to his heart.
He has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss a solution with him. Despite growing pressure to rethink from even his own lawmakers, Johnson said this week that he was “very proud of the support we have given,” pointing out that the government was supporting families with a social security increase of £20 ($25) a week.
Councils, Johnson said, had also been given £63 million ($81m) to help people struggling to afford food and essentials. The Local Government Association, however, said this funding was intended to be spent before the end of September.
“We don’t want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result of any inattention by this government – and you are not going to see that,” said Johnson.
But has the UK government already lost the PR battle?
After attempts to provide 1.4 million disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week ($19) food vouchers during holiday was voted down, Rashford took to Twitter.
“Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics, and let’s focus on the reality,” he posted. “A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.”
Rashford had already achieved much in football; representing his country at a European Championship and a World Cup, scoring 74 goals for United – a tally that will only increase over the next few years. Both on and off the pitch, he continues to make his mark.