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Liverpool's Mohamed Salah celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the Champions League final soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, June 1, 2019.
Felipe Dana/AP
OpinionCitizenship

11 Trailblazing Footballers Fighting to Make the World a Better Place

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Sport reflects society. It can often show us where we need to work to make the world a more equal, tolerant, and inclusive place. No wonder so many footballers moonlight as activists — in an attempt to use their platform, wealth, and power to make the world a little better. Take action here to join our movement to end extreme poverty  and get stuck into the fight.

There’s a reason why football fans are utterly obsessed with Transfer Deadline Day: the term used to describe theatrical final moments that the men's clubs in the Premier League are allowed to make any new signings.

And it’s a reason that’s often lost in the season itself. 

“It’s hope,” Harry Redknapp will probably mutter today, window up, driving down the M25 with Niko Kranjčar bending in to listen from the backseat. “Listen, Niko. Listen. Transfer Deadline Day — it’s all about hope.”

For a fleeting few hours, anything can happen. It’s a fireball of rumours — beautiful, terrible anarchy — that could define a football fan’s median dopamine levels for months, maybe years, to come.

For every Luis Suarez (Ajax to Liverpool, 2010, £22.8 million) there’s a Radamel Falcao (Monaco to Manchester United, 2014, £6 million) — and it all balances on a knife edge thinner than Arsenal’s chances of signing Philipe Coutinho.

Hope. That’s also the force that drives activism: the idea that although the world can sometimes be a dark place, it always has the chance to be better. 

Football and activism share a similar vision for the future. No matter who you are or where you come from, anything is possible.

So in that spirit, we’ve carefully selected a Global Citizen XI — our team of football geniuses who have in some way fought to change the world too. But this is serious stuff. The formation must make total tactical sense (3-4-3), and it must be competitive. This is real, it’s only fun if we all pretend this team is real. OK?

C’mon deadline day. Make it happen.

Manager: Megan Rapinoe

Current team: Reign FC
Issue: LGBTQ+ Rights

Megan Rapinoe is a winner. She knows how to win. If George Osborne can have nine jobs, Rapinoe can have as many as she likes with us: coach, director of football, majority shareholder, transfer tsar, the lot. While getting paid exactly what she's worth too — none of this gender pay gap nonsense here.

She's already the boss: co-captain of the greatest national team in the history of women's football; World Cup winner, twice over; ally of LGBTQ+ organisations around the world. Remember that time she sued the United States Soccer Federation for gender discrimination? Or when she took the knee in soliarity with Colin Kaepernick? 

And oh my word, can she give a team talk.

"This is my charge to everyone: we have to be better," Rapinoe said at her team's victory parade. "We have to love more, hate less. We've got to listen more and talk less... It's our responsibility to make this world a better place."

FYI football Twitter: Deadline Day for the Women’s Super League is September 5. Get it in the diary — and nobody touch the gaffer's parking space.

CF: Mohamed Salah 

Current team: Liverpool
Issue: Islamophobia

There’s only two certainties in life. Death — and Salah bagging 20 goals a season. Benjamin Franklin foolishly once quipped that taxes that were on that list too. But he died about two centuries before image rights loopholes became a thing, so there’s that.

Liverpool’s “Egyptian King” is definitely the best player in the world. 

But his talismanic goalscoring abilities have led to an unexpected result: Salah just so happens to be a Muslim — and Islamophobic hate crimes have reportedly fallen by 19% in Merseyside since he became a Liverpool player, according to one academic paper, while anti-Muslim tweets among Liverpool fans fell by half, from 7.2% to 3.4%.

There’s even a chant to go with it, sang to the tune of "Good Enough" by britpop band Dodgy: “If he scores another few then I’ll be Muslim too.”

CF: Kylian Mbappé 

Current team: Paris Saint-Germain
Issue: Disabilities

Young footballers these days, huh? Rich and spoilt, those hairless sportsbabies! All those glitzy music videos, the expensive cars, or that one time Mario Ballotelli had a sword fight in a curry house, past curfew, the night before scoring a brace in the Manchester derby. So rich. So spoilt.

But don’t believe everything you read in the papers, because Gen-Z footballers are out here showing everyone how it’s done. 

Specifically one wonderkid — you might have heard of him, World Cup winner Kylian Mbappé? — who donated his entire earnings from that tournament, including a £265,000 bonus for the final alone, to a charity in France that helps children with disabilities. 

Oh, and Ballotelli apparently once drove around Manchester at Christmas, dressed up as Santa, total baller, giving away free money. Checkmate.

ST: Peter Crouch 

Current team: (Barely) Retired
Issue: Climate Change

It’s simple. Play the ball long, Crouchy can knock it down, no running required, still officially the tallest skyscraper in London despite recent construction efforts, and either Salah or Mbappé will score. It’s basic physics. Lock up your defences, nobody is safe.

RoboCrouch is in this team on merit only. But before retiring this summer, he co-signed a letter with 124 other public figures to urge wealthy countries to declare a climate emergency and cut down on carbon emissions to prevent global warming before it’s too late.

Crouchinho has supported efforts to tackle climate change for a long time too — including starring in a controversial short film written by Richard Curtis for the 10:10 campaign to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in 2010. However, the project was pulled within hours of release after audiences reacted poorly to the satirical depiction of exploding children.

Impact.

CAM: Juan Mata 

Current team: Manchester United
Issue: The Global Goals

Don’t be fooled, friend. Juan Mata may very well be the nicest man in football, but the moment he offers you his seat on the tube — zip! The ball you didn’t even know he had has gone past you, out the Victoria line, somehow into Salah’s feet at Wembley, goal. Look, there is Mata, holding a baby, murmuring some sweet lullaby — but bam! There is no infant here, just a ball, now on the ground, it’s a free kick, it sizzles into the top corner, 2.0.

Mata is street-smart. But he’s also world-smart. He’s previously criticised the “obscene”, “unfathomable” amount of money that footballers earn — and so he co-founded Common Goal, an organisation that urges sportspeople to donate 1% of their wages to causes that advance the United Nations’ Global Goals to end extreme poverty by 2030.

Mata is the Bill Gates of football. He can stay on the coaching staff when he retires.

RM: David Beckham 

Current team: Retired but still likes to have a moment.
Issue: Malaria

Beckham is pretty much the swiss-army knife of activism: multi-purpose, and likely looks fetching in camouflage. 

The England legend has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since he played under Sir Alex Ferguson — oh my, that perfectly weighted quiff — he donated the entirety of his salary to a children’s charity when he played for Paris Saint-Germain — just look at those hardman tattoos, firmly caressing the nape of his neck — and along with Spice Wife Victoria, donated their outfits from Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding to victims of the Manchester bomb attack. 

But did you know he speaks nine languages? Sure, it’s with the help of a Malaria-fighting robot, part of a launch of the world’s first voice petition to end the deadly disease. But hey — this is the Global Citizen XI, we need somebody to translate the team talk in the dressing room!

Also, we need him on free kicks. Next.

LM: Raheem Sterling (c)

Current team: Manchester City
Issue: Racism

Introducing: captain, my captain. The 24-year-old might not be used to the armband, but given his trailblazing, unapologetic leadership tackling racism in football, there’s no other player who could possibly lead the Global Citizen XI. 

Sterling is the only England international born outside the country; he followed his mother to the UK after his father was killed in Jamaica when he was two years old. He’s also often been the most criticised — frequently forced to hit back at a media that he’s accused of reporting on players differently depending on their race.

“My mum’s always told me I’m a black king,” he told Guardian Football. “She’s always told me to be comfortable in my body and to be comfortable in my skin colour. 

Anyway, Piers Morgan hates him, so he must be doing something right.

CDM: Luka Modric 

Current team: Real Madrid
Issue: Refugee Crisis

Luka Modric does his activism like he does his football: quietly influential. 

The midfield architect has been called the “best Croatian player ever.” But when he was six years old, he became a refugee after his grandfather was killed by a militia. 

Croatia had declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991; Serbia had invaded his hometown; and Modric fled with his family to live in a hotel with other asylum seekers.

Imagine: a former refugee captaining his national side in a World Cup final. Think about the impact that must have — a man who as a child trained in the shadow of a war going on to win the Champions League four times in five seasons at the biggest club on the planet. 

He never shouts about it himself. But Modric’s presence on a football pitch is in itself an act of rebellion. Every pass is a protest.

It also helps that he moves the ball like he’s playing a violin. First name on the teamsheet.

RB: Hector Bellerin 

Current team: Arsenal
Issue: Family Planning

There’s two things you need to know about Hector Bellerin: he’s really, really cool (more cool than you’re thinking, imagine Adam Driver, but Spanish, in a turtleneck, maybe wearing Burberry), and, more importantly, he’s an Extremely Fast Football Player.

But he’s also in here because, this:

The tweet came after Alabama criminalised abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, the strictest rules in the whole of the US. Experts say the legislation could disproportionately affect women of colour, the state’s poorest women, while Alabama consistently ranks as one of the poorest US states: over 800,000 people lived below the poverty line in 2018.

The UN has also reported that Alabama has the worst poverty in the developed world.  

Bellerin is no stranger to activism either — after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017, he pledged £50 for every minute he played for Spain at the European Under-21 Championship. He got to the final, donating £19,050 to the British Red Cross appeal.

Get that man’s beautiful face all over the Global Citizen XI 2019/20 kit launch.

CB: Jérôme Boateng 

Current team: Bayern Munich
Issue: Extreme Poverty

While AirPods decimate polite office chit chat around the world, there’s one man who has stepped up to spark a headphone revolution, uniquely designed to bring people together. Thankfully, he is also very good at tackling.

Jérôme Boateng joined Global Citizen earlier this year to create a special pair of headphones that worked as a golden ticket — getting the wearer into any Live Nation concert in Germany happening in 2019, including gigs for the Backstreet Boys, Metallica, and Thirty Seconds to Mars.

All you had to do to win was join our movement to end extreme poverty, and call on the German government to increase their international development spending to 0.7% of gross national income. Watch out, Bellerin: Boateng might be following you down to Paris Fashion Week.

LB: Leighton Baines 

Current Team: Everton
Issue: Education

In July 2017, Leighton Baines put on a blindfold to play Goal Ball — a form of the game where you listen for a ball that has bells inside it — with deaf and blind children in Tanzania.

He was visiting Uhuru Mchanganyiko School in Dar es Salaam to see for himself how Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) was investing its lifesaving UK aid budget in education: 545,000 Tanzanian children will go to school because of UK aid.

“All of us at Everton think school is important and it’s fantastic to see UK aid helping these kids here in Tanzania,” Baines said. “Every child should have the opportunity to learn and have a better future — and football is a great way to learn how to work together as a team.”

If he can literally play with his eyes shut, he’s in the team. Vice-Captain.

GK: Alisson Becker

Current team: Liverpool
Issue: Vaccines

There is nothing this man can’t stop. A football, oh please, behave. Breastfeeding stigma? More difficult, but possible when he’s lined up alongside his badass wife, Dr. Natalia Loewe Becker, a brilliant Brazillian doctor and health advocate. Bad service on RyanAir flights? Potentially.

Basically, Alisson wanted a challenge. So he thought, what’s been historically quite tricky to palm away? Something more difficult to defend against than a Gary Neville backpass?

The answer — vaccine-preventable diseases! The 2018/19 Golden Glove winner now supports the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its efforts to keep kids safe from diseases like polio and measles. It’s vital timing: WHO recently reported that fake news on vaccines was one of the biggest health threats the world had to face this year.

Alisson can also stop an article. See?