It took decades of turmoil and upheaval, crises and scandals, but Europe’s soccer players have finally found their social conscience. The instigator? A wave of protests across an ocean, the stateside swell of outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands – and knees – of local police officers.
On Saturday, U.S. national teamer Weston McKennie took the lead, wearing an armband on which he’d written “Justice for George Floyd” in his Schalke game against Werder Bremen in the German Bundesliga.
That same day, French forward Marcus Thuram celebrated a goal for his Borussia Mönchengladbach by kneeling, Colin Kaepernick-style. And Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi, from England and Spain, respectively, each celebrated their goals by revealing under-shirts that said “Justice for George Floyd.” (Sancho, curiously, was booked by the referee for this, while Hakimi was not.)
That same day, Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappé tweeted “#JusticeForGeorge.”
On Monday, the Liverpool squad posed for a picture of the entire team kneeling with the hashtag “Black Lives Matter.”
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford took to his social media to say that: “Black lives matter. Black culture matters. Black communities matter. We matter.” His teammate Paul Pogba echoed the sentiment.
This is a remarkable turn of events for a sport that has, traditionally, avoided injecting itself with social issues in any way it possibly could. It has gone to enormous lengths not to take sides or stands or to offend anyone. Heretofore, soccer has been zealous about keeping social issues at bay, which was always a ridiculous position to take, given that some of the sport’s most beloved clubs exist at least partially as acts of political defiance. Rare was the player, like Marcus Thuram’s father Lilian, who spoke his mind.
For a long while, FIFA even silenced political discourse and suspended federations that had been touched by domestic politics in any way, which was a plainly absurd and unenforceable policy, given the role soccer plays societally in most nations. This time around, FIFA punted when tasked with deciding on whether these protests were allowable under its rules.
It’s noteworthy that, aside from Pogba, who is 27 years old, all of those players are 22 or younger. A new generation of young stars seems to have arrived at the top of the game with a sense that their platforms are useful not only to sell merchandise or otherwise enrich themselves. They seem to understand intuitively that it comes with power and, consequently, responsibility.
The contrast with the game’s ruling kings is stark. Cristiano Ronaldo’s last two tweets were about his haircut and a family bike ride. Lionel Messi joined the “#BlackoutTuesday” movement in his most recent Instagram post, but has otherwise avoided speaking out.
What’s more notable still is that the events that sparked this fresh awareness among the sport’s young stars are so far from their homes. McKennie excepted, none of them have obvious ties to the United States or indeed the Black Lives Matter movement, although all of those individual players are men of color.
This suggests an understanding and concern for the world that would – at the risk of painting with too broad a brush – have been hard to find in a lot of the star players of previous generations. During the 1960s and 1970s, Johan Cruyff and George Best became countercultural icons yet neither ever demonstrated any particular concern for the revolutions of their day. Nor did the dragging wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, which had Europe in spasms of fury, provoke much of a reaction in the soccer world. Neither the financial crash and Occupy movements, nor the protests after entire European countries were crippled by foolhardy austerity policies, got the sport’s luminaries to speak out.
Yet here they are, speaking out. A generation of activist soccer stars born and coming of age right before us, in this time of crisis, using the power of their megaphones for more than their own benefit.
Soccer’s young stars have awoken.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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