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The ugly truth about football and its culture

USING HIS PLATFORM: Héctor Bellerín (left), here pictured with Raheem Sterling, says more footballers should speak out on social issues to help move society forward

MOST OF us are desperate for a fly-on-the-wall insight into how football works behind the scenes.

After all, we’re usually limited to sanitised club propaganda and reporting that generally goes by the same old script.

For the record, then, here’s an ugly truth about football and its culture.

"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.”

That quote came from a player at the top of the game - Héctor Bellerín, the Arsenal defender and Spain international – so he’s likely to know a thing or two about how things work.

In a frank interview with Arsenal Media, he discussed all sorts of topics away from the sport – everything from mental health to the environment.

In speaking out, Héctor has joined a small collective of footballers prepared to put their head above the parapet when it comes to talking about issues important to them.

And mark my words, it is a small collective.

The Spaniard is right when he says the industry doesn’t encourage players to speak out. As a result, not many do. You have to be pretty brave to step out of line when everyone around you is seemingly conforming.

Besides, would a player speaking out be welcomed in all corners? Probably not.

“How dare that person earning thousands of pounds a week have issues. And how’s it possible when they earn so much money?”

“He shouldn’t be doing that – it’s a distraction. His job is to play football.”

Sound familiar?

Generally, footballers are seen as just that. Many people don’t realise there is a human being inside that sports car, luxury apartment or designer outfit that some players have the luxury of owning.

There are immense pressures which accompany the microscopic scrutiny footballers find themselves under. All too often, they are dismissed.

This issue is not unique to football. Stars in other sports - including Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga - have been vilified by some for standing up and speaking out for something they believe in.

The latter has been living in exile since 2003 and has received death threats. His phone was even bugged. All because he, alongside his team mate, protested against the politics of former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe.

It begs the question: why bother? Doing so may just make life even more difficult.

Of course, not all responses are negative. As more and more sports stars make a stand on issues important to them, the dials are slowly turning on acceptance of the fact there’s more to these people than a flash lifestyle.

That’s a good thing. We need more people like those mentioned above, and others who have been brave enough, to challenge the normal convention of what’s expected from sportsmen and women in the public eye.

Danny Rose, for instance, was brave enough to reveal his struggles with depression in the hyper masculine world of men’s football. He’s not the first player to come forward on this issue in recent years, but perhaps the most high profile.

Not too long ago, such behaviour would see him accused of distracting the national team from the job in hand, and selfishly leaving them a man down. Unfortunately, there’s probably a few who still feel that way today.

But in the main, things are better now. Danny revealed a side to him many hadn’t seen before, or barely realised he had – his human side. For that reason, we sympathised with his struggles, warmed to him and probably supported him that bit more.

So, going back to the question posed above, here’s why players should speak out on issues important to them, according to Héctor: “With the platform we have, we should be the people that scream at these social issues and get them out there, so as a society we can move forward.”

Exactly. Footballers are in a unique position to influence like few others; they are worshipped by thousands, millions even.

Adorning fans hang on every last social media post and interview. When they talk, people listen. Sports stars can influence positive change in a way politicians and policy-makers can only dream of.

Someone standing up for what they feel is right shouldn’t be shot down because they play sport for a living. We could probably learn a thing or two from a different perspective.

In many cases such actions should be applauded. Sometimes doing so lifts the lid on a taboo, opens up debate and forces positive change. But without sticking one’s head above the parapet, nothing will change.

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