A Special Return For The EPL

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There are two halves to Manchester, in England’s north west, that are separated not by a geographical line, but by a soccer rivalry that permeates every pore of the city.

The EPL’s Manchester United and Manchester City wage a never-ending battle that ebbs and flows with time but the passion of which never dims. There are no second-favorite teams here. To love United is to hate City, and vice versa, one of most intrinsic unwritten rules in British soccer — but Marcus Rashford, if only for a moment, has changed all that.

All of which makes the joint front shown during these turbulent times that much more remarkable.

As the EPL prepared for its return today, from a three-month layoff enforced by COVID-19, Rashford, United’s 22-year-old forward, was able to claim one of the most important victories of his young life. Thanks in large part to his spearheading and highlighting an online campaign, the British government backtracked on a plan that would prevent needy schoolchildren from receiving free meals during the summer break.

It was an extraordinary effort of activism and perseverance, one that gained traction not just in the sports community but was quickly picked up by key politicians, and ultimately left Prime Minister Boris Johnson little choice but to acquiesce.

As much as anything, it reinforced the power that athletes, especially prominent ones with sizable social media followings, have to enact change in this day and age, a trend we’ve seen more and more of in recent weeks.

“Marcus Rashford has generated more tangible good with his voice than he ever will with his feet,” wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Liew. “In forcing the prime minister into a hasty spin of the heels, Rashford has delivered a timely reminder (of) football’s influence and cultural currency.”

Rashford’s demands were straightforward enough – and his shared story of struggling for food as a child forceful enough – that his plea cut instantly and resoundingly across all lines of soccer tribalism.

Fans of many other teams, including some of those that count United as hated enemies, got on board. To their credit, the strongest of those were the team United has tormented the most across its history — their local rival, City.

While City have won the past two EPL titles and have thrived since receiving a vast influx of money from their Middle Eastern ownership group, United has traditionally been the stronger of the two, dominating the 1990s and 2000s. That period was a source of pain and anguish for City, which even dropped down two divisions before better times arrived.

Yet when Rashford’s meal plan was challenged online by controversial commentator Katie Hopkins, who questioned why taxpayer money should be used to fund those in need, City were outspoken in their support of a rival player.

Hopkins posted a photoshopped picture of herself in a City jersey, tackling Rashford, to indicate how she stood against his policy. “I look hot in blue,” she wrote on Twitter.

“Not in our blue,” came the immediate response from the official City account, adding the hashtag #WellDoneMarcus.

“Maybe these stupid people don’t believe you are a human being, too,” added City head coach Pep Guardiola, when asked about criticism of Rashford at a later press conference. “We can have an opinion, the same as a nurse, a doctor or even a politician. What we are, we are humans, and why shouldn’t we say our opinion when we believe we can (make) a better society, when we are public?

“When the people say it is not enough, of course it isn’t. But let’s start here. I admire a lot of these kind of gestures because they do it for all of us.”

Rashford has a habit of making an impact, having scored in his first appearance for United, in his first EPL game, and in his first outing in the Champions League. He made his debut for the England national team at 18, and became the country’s youngest ever player to score in his first game.

His efforts supporting social change have made him one of the favorites to win the BBC’s highly-regarded Sports Personality of the Year award and given his career a meaning far beyond all his impressive exploits on the field.

The timing of the news, corresponding with soccer’s restart, could not be better — and helps make the EPL’s return feel even more special.

English soccer reappears with Liverpool set to clinch the EPL title, with Champions League places up for grabs and with the fight to avoid relegation set to heat up.

In order to complete the season swiftly, the remaining 92 matches will be staged over 40 days, all without fans in attendance. Liverpool’s lead at the top is an extraordinary 25 points and they won’t be caught, while close attention should be paid to whether upstarts Wolves and Sheffield United could force their way into a Champions League position.

At the bottom, Norwich seems doomed at the foot of the table, but above them five teams are separated by just four points and the struggle for survival shapes up to be tense and exhilarating. And, most of all, we as soccer fans will all be in it together. There’s a certain beauty in that.

The appetite for soccer has rarely been higher, with the German Bundesliga having been warmly received both at home and internationally. The EPL, already the most-watched competition on the planet, has been keenly anticipated.

Soccer is often seen as the big bad wolf, a corporate setting where players are only bothered about counting their money and living a celebrity lifestyle.

Rashford’s efforts, and the way the sport rallied behind him, may help create a new narrative.


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