“I’m starving!” Marcus Rashford says arriving hungry – and half an hour late – for our lunch at the Gilbert Scott restaurant at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
Rather than sit in the large neo-gothic dining room, we were dragged into a drab private room. Rashford tries to keep a low profile. At 22, he’s used to being recognized as a multi-millionaire star striker for Manchester United, one of the most glitzy football clubs on the planet. Yet even crowd fervor in the world’s favorite sport, he says, has fallen short of “another kind of spotlight, another kind of attention” in recent weeks.
Rashford has become one of the unlikely heroes and rallyers of the pandemic in the UK. This summer he launched a campaign against food poverty so effective that it forced a political turn by Boris Johnson, which, at Rashford’s wish, allocated £ 120million to pay for meals for poor children across the country. It was an astonishing display of the power of the player Rashford repeatedly calls ‘crazy’. Our lunch follows a morning spent filming a documentary across London to promote his campaign. In the afternoon, Rashford has a meeting with the CEOs of large companies to seek further support for his goals.
“It’s crazy to believe, for example, how far this has gone,” he says. “At first I had an idea and I just tweeted it.”
Young footballers have a habit of making headlines for a variety of reasons, with tabloids gleefully recounting their sex lives and berating any personal excess. This month alone Rashford club teammate Mason Greenwood and Manchester City player Phil Foden apologized after being sent home while playing for the England national team in Iceland. , after it emerged the duo had invited women back to the team’s hotel in violation of quarantine rules.
Rashford’s example goes against the stereotype of the clean, testosterone-fueled athlete. Indeed, as our conversation unfolds, Rashford comes across as a young man with an old head. For now, he is elated alongside a generation of global athletes, such as Megan Rapinoe, Raheem sterling and James lebron, each militant for social justice. But Rashford is wary of a political and media class ready to take down sports heroes for any perceived indiscretion. In recent days, right-wing commentators criticizing his campaign motives have started targeting him on social media.
“I’ve seen people change very quickly,” he says with a soft Mancunian accent, before looking for a football analogy to explain the vagaries of life, sport and fame. “If you are in good shape, everything can go as you wish. Then, in the next game, the ball just won’t go into the net.
Before all that, Rashford wants to eat. A waitress warned me that he had pre-ordered. I express my disappointment that despite stepping off the menu, the choice is unimaginative. “Pasta?” He says as we sit down at a white linen table. “I need energy. Carbohydrates. Seriously. “Still, when I select the grilled hake, it comes back to the menu,” Wait, are they making salmon? ”
Rashford adds it as a starter, also inspiring me for the tuna tartare. Eyes troubled after taking a nap on a long cab ride, he also orders a Coca-Cola as a lift. No match for Rashford’s slender and muscular physique, I opt for a Diet Coke (even imagining the disapproval of the most talkative readers of the FT).
St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Rd, London NW1 2AR
Tuna tartare, coriander, lime, chili, sesame cracker 22 €
Dried salmon, crème fraîche, lemon, chives £ 10.50
Pasta special (off menu) £ 20
Poached hake in brown butter, chicory, hollandaise 29 €
Nocellara del Belice olives € 4.50
Bread basket € 3.50
Still water £ 4
Coke x 2 € 7.50
Diet coke € 3.50
Service charge £ 14.93
Total (tax incl.) £ 114.43
He enjoys, probably more than most FT Lunchers, the sumptuous meal we order. Rashford is the youngest of five siblings from a single-parent family in Wythenshawe, a working-class neighborhood in south Manchester. Her mother, Mélanie, worked minimum wage jobs, but sometimes found it was not enough to feed the family. They sometimes visited local food banks and soup kitchens. At school, he relied on free, state-funded breakfasts and lunches given to underprivileged children. Well-to-do classmates helped supplement these meals.
“I remember some things from their packed lunches that I once loved,” he says of a childhood friend. “I don’t know why this sticks to my skin. It was always those little Milky Way yogurts, I remember always asking
her parents to put on one more, so at lunchtime I could steal one from her.
Our entrees arrive quickly. My tuna tartare is soft rather than succulent. Rashford pushes the chives aside before carefully arranging the finely cut strips of dried salmon on his fork.
Rashford was six and already a prodigious scoring talent for a home side when he was spotted by a Manchester United scout. His mother convinced the club to accept him into their training program at the age of 10, a year earlier than most children. She argued that her nutritional needs were best served by boarding the accommodations at the talented youth club. He became the latest academy graduate to don the club’s famous red jersey. At 18, he scored on his senior debut and would become the youngest player to score on his debut for the England national team.
Still on United’s first team for the past four seasons, the coronavirus hiatus was, he says, the first time his mind has strayed from football. “My head was everywhere. I needed to channel my brain to focus, to try to achieve something.
Reflecting on his difficult upbringing, he wondered how many children would go hungry if schools were closed. Research suggests that 1.3 million children qualified for free meals in England, a quarter of whom received no additional financial assistance during the lockdown. “A lot of kids,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
A tweet asking for more information on the issue led to a collaboration with FareShare, a charity with which it helped raise £ 20million to distribute 3million meals a day to vulnerable people across the country.
Then, in June, he published a moving open letter to the government. “Political affiliations aside, can’t we all agree that no child should go to bed hungry?” Rashford wrote. “Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we are not on the right track now.”
Rashford believes his story provided the moral status required to gain wider public support. “When it’s someone who’s been through this, people log on right away because they know it’s genuine,” he says. After the footballer’s idea received bipartisan support from MPs, Johnson extended the free school lunch program during the summer recess.
Suddenly at the head of a movement against child poverty, Rashford has new demands. These include extending free school meals during holiday periods and for any child whose household has universal credit, a social protection program for low-income people, as well as expanding voucher programs. food for poor families. (In the days following our lunch, Rashford launched a “task force” with business leaders pledging to support these measures. Downing Street has said he will review the proposals.)
How much will it cost the taxpayer? Rashford admits he doesn’t know, but says the price for inaction is incalculable. “The system is broken – and it has to change. Otherwise, it’s just a cycle. And you repeat the cycle.
Starters dispatched, the industry follows quickly. Rashford sprinkles cheese over conchiglioni pasta shells dipped in a creamy tomato sauce. My hake, poached in butter, rests on a Dutch lake clogging the arteries. Rashford, with less qualms about hoarding calories, orders a second coke.
Is all this activism chimerical? The message should convert politicians and commentators who often express solidarity with the needy, while portraying many welfare recipients as sponges. I point out that, two years before Rashford was born, the Prime Minister, then a newspaper columnist, wrote in The Spectator that single mothers produced a generation of “ill-bred, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children.”
Rashford forgives. “[Johnson] didn’t have to change your mind [on free school meals], ”he said.“ And he did. I was on the phone with him and just thanked him. It takes a lot for someone to openly say, “OK, I was wrong about this and we are going to change and do the right thing.” . . whatever he said before, [the U-turn is what] mattered most ”.
However, not all politicians receive a similar pass. When games were suspended in March, Premier League players resisted their clubs’ demand to slash payrolls worth a total of £ 2.9bn per year by 30%.
Julian Knight, chairman of the parliamentary committee on digital, culture, media and sport, denounced the “moral vacuum” of sport. (Prior to entering politics, Knight was a personal finance journalist who wrote a book offering advice on tax evasion.) UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock while answering questions about the management of the pandemic by the government, argued that footballers should “take a pay cut and play. their share ”.
The feud dissipated when Premier League players accepted a large donation to the NHS, a move that also ensured billionaire club owners did not benefit. Rashford insists the players didn’t need public pressure to make a financial sacrifice. Given the circumstances, he said, “we would have done this anyway.” Still, the argument left an aftertaste.
“Open up a conversation about player salaries during a time like this when you should be focusing on things like mental health,” he said, shaking his head. “I think football is just an easy target. It’s an easy topic of discussion. It is a media attraction. “
Rashford acknowledges a cameo role in football’s latest tabloid circus. In the week leading up to our lunch, he was on vacation on the Greek island of Mykonos and pictured at a party with compatriot Harry Maguire.
A few days later, Maguire and two friends were involved in an altercation with plainclothes police. In a quickly convened trial, the footballer was given a suspended prison sentence after being convicted of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and attempted bribery. Maguire appealed the ruling, saying he thought he was kidnapped by the men before realizing they were officers.
My attempt to form an opinion on Maguire’s conduct leaves a void, but Rashford says the wild speculation surrounding the case only reflects an unhealthy fascination with his craft. “I saw stories like I was there [during Maguire’s arrest]he said. “It’s just crazy. That I saw what happened… I was in bed! I just don’t understand how so many people can have such a big opinion on it. while we don’t know the story. “
Rashford, who as a child watched games at United’s famous Old Trafford Stadium, represents a rare connection to the club’s local community. The 142-year-old institution, acquired by American billionaire Glazer family in 2005, is typical of the League in that its squad is largely made up of foreign players.
His bond to the fans has not exempted Rashford from criticism of the team’s decline since legendary former coach Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 after winning 38 major trophies in 26 years. Since then, the club have not come close to winning the Premier League.
Rashford says the extended season, in which games were played without spectators, left the players exhausted. “I know it sounds silly, but without the fans, without having them behind you, it’s so hard to keep going,” he says. “It shows us not to take the fans for granted. We all just want them to come back.
Not that he tries to pay too much attention to the supporters either. Having garnered 8.7 million Instagram followers and 3.3 million Twitter followers, Rashford is trying not to read responses to his post-game feed. “Social media is just a good comment, a bad comment, a good comment, a bad comment,” he says. “Your head will be everywhere. It’s easier not to read everything. . . “
Rashford knows all too well how the passion for the beautiful game turns into horrific abuse. Alongside other Premier League players last season, he knelt down ahead of matches in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The move came after incidents of players reporting racial abuse from supporters in Premier League games and black England players being taunted by monkeys in games in Bulgaria and Montenegro.
Rashford is exasperated, but admits to having few practical answers. “Everyone talks about [racism in the game], “He said.” And then it won’t happen for a little while. And then it will happen again. People have to do something to make it stop. “
I tore up my hake, but Rashford only has half his plate left. Having spent so long discussing the most troubled aspects of the sport, I ask Rashford to remember his glories, his greatest matches, his most illustrious opponents.
Raised on the bustling streets of south Manchester, Rashford says he always ‘watched’ others to stay out of trouble. This instinct is also an asset in football, he says. Take, for example, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world, who spends the first few minutes of a game doing little more than prowling around the opposing defense to identify his weaknesses.
“The path [Messi] finds spaces, it’s amazing, ”says Rashford. “When I first played against him that’s what I said to Jesse [Lingard, a teammate] at halftime. He doesn’t move, but he’s everywhere, because he lets everyone move. “
Winning the FA Cup in 2016, Rashford’s first senior trophy with the club, is his best memory in a short career. I tell him my favorite moment came last year, when he stepped in to take a last-minute penalty in a must-see European match against Paris Saint-Germain. A thin smile widens as he recalls the scene. A stadium illuminated at night. A kick to win the game. Smashing the ball in the top corner. These are the occasions when he still enjoys the game “100%”.
“When I talk about taking responsibility, it was probably one of the first times. . . I did not let moments pass. When the opportunity arose, my teammates trusted me. “
Someone’s knocking at the door; our time is up. “OK, OK,” Rashford said, picking up the last of his pasta and waving an apologetic goodbye. Having become one of the leaders of his team, he leaves to take charge of bigger affairs off the pitch.
Murad Ahmed is the sports editor of the FT
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