The Universal Game: Football’s Ability to Create Social Change

When Rio Ferdinand said “Only football can do this to you” during commentary, a whole legion of football fans would have known instantly what he meant. The beautiful game is the most popular sport in the world and its power goes well beyond the pitch. 

There is something magical about its ability to bring people together and create a level of connection and understanding in the most remote areas of the world. Football is a universal language that can cut across cultural barriers.

The last three World Cups have taken place in some of the most troubled countries on the planet. FIFA took the game to Brazil in 2014, Russia in 2018, and perhaps most controversially of all, Qatar in 2022.

The Brazilian tournament injected an estimated $15 billion into the economy, and it did have a positive impact on employment numbers, even if short-lived.

It also gave the people, many of whom were against hosting FIFA’s crown jewel event, a piece of hope and pride. Although the country was in mourning after losing 7-1 to Germany on the field of play, it did show Brazil at its best in terms of organization while the famous native hospitality was in full glow too.

Football itself is a reflection of society and a real driver of social change. A younger generation of fans want their team to reflect their values and for the club to understand the city that they live in. A perfect example of this is the way Jurgen Klopp strode into Liverpool in 2015 to become manager.

He called for everyone to turn from doubters into believers. Not only did the fortunes of the football team gradually change, but the fans were suddenly reenergized as they lent full support to a manager who simply understood what football meant to them.

More importantly, the former Reds manager spoke to people directly about how to manage expectations around the COVID pandemic that took football off the screens and pitches and left many sports fans rudderless. He may have been asking people to look after themselves and each other from a Liverpool standpoint.

In reality, he was connecting to every soccer fan. Klopp made people, players, and spectators feel better about themselves. That is the real beauty of the game at its best.

The power of footballers to impact those who are less fortunate off the pitch can affect real economic change. When Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford was campaigning for free school meals, the initial reaction of politicians was to ignore it. 

However, Rashford was speaking up for the unseen who would never be at the top of the agenda for governments. Euro odds for the striker to be England’s hero in Germany might not be high, but he transcended football with this campaign.

Not only did Boris Johnson’s party perform a u-turn and extend free meals to holidays, but this also supercharged other businesses – like cafes and restaurants – to do similar. A footballer had sparked social conscience better than an elected official could ever do. The critique that players should stay in their lane has never been less true.

Football clubs can also connect in the most simple ways to keep their closeness to supporters well beyond the stadium. Mental health is one of the most traditionally stigmatized subjects, but a recent suicide prevention campaign by Norwich City gained widespread global approval.

It was an effective set-up with the most chatty football fan talking to an unusually quiet fellow supporter. It would lead the viewer to think the latter had mental health issues. Ultimately, the end of the advert focuses on the empty seat vacated by the apparently happy-go-lucky fan with the message: “You are not alone.”

Former footballer Vinnie Jones, the hard man of Wimbledon FC  has also appeared on a TV campaign in collaboration with Chelsea FC, insisting that men should speak to each other about something other than the game.

If a man as hard-nosed as Jones is able to deliver such a message, then that’s the way to cut through the superficial machismo that is often exemplified on and off the pitch and in the stands.

There are many community schemes within the Premier League and other clubs that bring people together who are experiencing difficulties. Playing the game is an outlet. Talking comes next.

Football is a game that carries a connection that no other sport can quite match. It carries a message of teamwork and passion, an emotional surge that can reflect the ups and downs of life.

Social and cultural norms are based around its very existence, like a religion every weekend. Most of all, it doesn’t have to explain its popularity. Football can travel across continents and never loses the power to exact a special feeling that makes a difference.