WHAT HAPPENED?

On a rainy night in Paris, standing on the pitch at the Parc de Princes, one footballer said enough was enough. Speaking out against police brutality in Nigeria, Odion Ighalo sent out an impassioned message about the atrocities that are happening in his home country.

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Nigerians have been protesting the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and the hashtag #EndSARS has brought the issue to light across the world.

In the passionate video message he posted on Twitter, Ighalo said:

I’m sad and I’m broken, I don’t know where to start from. I’m not the kind of guy who talks about politics, but I can’t keep quiet anymore for what is going on back home in Nigeria. I would say the Nigerian government are a shame to the world for killing your own citizens, sending the military to kill unarmed protesters because they are protesting for their own rights? It’s uncalled for. Today, the 20th of October 2020, you people will be remembered in history as the first government to send the military to the city to start killing your own citizens. I am ashamed of this government, we are tired of you guys and we can’t take this anymore.

He called upon the UK government and United Nations to “see what is going on in Nigeria” and emphasised at the end: "They will keep killing if the world doesn’t talk about this".

Ighalo is not the first and won’t be the last player to use his platform. However, that platform can come at a cost.

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SCRUTINY AND ABUSE

Professional footballers are under huge scrutiny. Their status and associated high wages are often used as justification for that scrutiny. However, scrutiny is not the only thing footballers have to contend with, there is also vitriol.

It’s sad that people like Ian Wright have to publicly call out the daily and shocking abuse that still continues on social media.

Yet, now more than ever footballers are using their position to voice their thoughts on issues of racism, government policies and international politics. They have a platform and are unafraid to use it. They don’t need to ask permission for using their voice to address issues outside of sport.

FOOTBALLERS USING THEIR PLATFORM

Ighalo's impassioned post was a continuation of a trend of footballers who have used their platform to speak out. Marcus Rashford, Hector Bellerin and Raheem Sterling are three examples of players using their reach to press for change.

Marcus Rashford

The forward scored in Tuesday’s clash against Paris Saint Germain to secure a 2-1 win for Manchester United. Yet, the following day he logged on to Twitter and was communicating with MPs to secure food vouchers for millions of children, so they don’t go hungry over Christmas.

Rashford has been told to ‘stick to football’ when he is talking about his campaign. But he’s getting everything right when it comes to just being a decent human being.

Ahead of a crucial vote on a motion to extend free school meals into the holidays, he tweeted that he would be “paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children, 2.2M of them who currently qualify for free school meals. 42% newly registered. Not to mention the 1.5M children who currently don’t qualify.”

It garnered an astonishing response from Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe, who, when Rashford suggested he turned on his replies, responded:

“You have 3.4M followers Marcus, to my 96K. The power is yours here. Everyone knows feeding hungry children is a top priority. I'd like to see Universal Credit boosted. But if the economy and currency collapse, the poor will be devastated. Alleging a blind eye is just wrong’.

An elected Member of Parliament telling a footballer that the power is his in such a debate is a startling claim.

This month Rashford was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his services to vulnerable children in the UK, who have been affected during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hector Bellerin

Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin is another example of a player who has used his platform to cultivate change. Speaking to the club's website he said:

I know it is very comfortable to just sit at home and stay with your family, your kids and your friends and not think about anything, but with the platform we have, we should be the people that scream at these social issues and out them out there, so as a society we can move forward.

Speaking about why some footballers might not feel like they can speak out, he continued: “I feel like the football industry is an industry where we have to be really quiet and play. I think the code around it is that footballers can’t really do anything else other than kick a ball.

“This is kind of the stereotype, so when there’s a footballer who’s stepping out of the box he’s always seen as someone that is not focused enough on football because he’s doing this, he’s doing that.”

The Spaniard has a keen interest in environmental issues, and at the tail end of last season, he promised to plant 3,000 trees for every time Arsenal won a game. He’s also partnered up with the global charity ‘One Tree Planted’ to plant one tree in the Amazon for every dollar donated. The total on the website currently stands at $59,645. In the summer he tweeted a picture of the trees being seeded ready to be planted in November.

THIS ACTIVISM IS IMPORTANT

It’s important to mention the wider political climate around the world. Some suggest separating politics and sport, but, the rise of populism and Britain’s exit from the European Union has fuelled racism.

Football is in many ways representative of society and continues to have its own issues with racism. Recent examples include Chelsea fans chanting “bomber” at Muslim player Mohamed Salah, a banana peel being thrown at Gabonese Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or when Taison was left in tears after suffering abuse from Dynamo Kyiv fans.

These are explicit examples of racism, but a subconscious bias can also permeate the psyche. And that is an issue Raheem Sterling addressed in relation to the UK media.

Tabloids have unfairly and at times viciously targeted young black players in a manner that is not applied to their white team-mates. Sterling shone a light on this in a statement on Instagram that asked for ‘fair publicity’ and an ‘equal chance’.

Footballers have taken matters into their own hands and formed a new age of activists who have positively used their global footprint to engender change. They have excelled on the pitch and now ruffled a few feathers off it too.

Renuka Odedra is a freelance football writer - you can follow her on Twitter here

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