London (AFP) – Marcus Rashford overcame a deprived childhood to star for Manchester United, giving the socially conscious England striker a platform to show he has not forgotten his roots.
Rashford’s credentials as one of the world’s brightest talents are well-established — he was recently rated as the fifth most valuable player in Europe.
While the 22-year-old’s success with United has brought him fame and fortune, this week his impact has been felt far away from the star-studded world of the Premier League.
Rashford, who has already helped raise around £20 million ($25 million) for FareShare, a charity that fights hunger and food waste, turned his attention to another worthy cause close to home.
In a heartfelt letter to lawmakers, Rashford revealed his difficult childhood and the reliance that his family once had on free school meals — for which nearly 1.3 million children are eligible in England.
“What families are going through now, I’ve once had to go through that and it’s very difficult to find a way out,” Rashford said as he asked the government to provide meals for deprived children during the upcoming summer holidays as well as in term-time.
“It’s very important for me to help people who are struggling.”
When that plea drew a muted response from the government, Rashford followed up with an impassioned article in the Times on Tuesday.
It was a bold push that paid off when Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said eligible children would be given food vouchers to cover the holidays.
Rashford’s emotional plea had its roots in the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe, a working-class area populated by housing estates and once described as an “extreme pocket of social deprivation and alienation” by the New York Times.
As one of five children in a single-parent family, Rashford watched while his mother Melanie worked seemingly endless hours to make ends meet, often relying on free school meals to keep hunger at bay.
Rashford’s mother would do her full weekly shop in Poundworld, where each item was less than a pound, and would ration food supplies to last seven days.
“My mother worked full-time, earning the minimum wage, to make sure we always had a good dinner at the table, but it wasn’t enough,” Rashford said recently.
“We bought seven yoghurts for a pound, so we could at least eat one of them a day.”
– Rapid rise at Old Trafford –
Football was Rashford’s escape and, after joining United’s youth set-up as a seven-year-old, he soon established himself as one to watch.
The coltish forward convinced the notoriously demanding Louis van Gaal to give him his United debut aged 18 in 2016, an occasion he marked by scoring twice against Midtjylland in the Europa League tie.
Rashford then scored on his Premier League debut against Arsenal just days later, sparking a rapid rise that saw him become the youngest player to score on his England debut when he netted in a friendly against Australia later that year.
Rashford had fallen in love with football when he watched from the stands as his idol Ronaldo scored a hat-trick for Real Madrid against United.
“No matter where he was playing, he played free and went out there and expressed himself. When you do that, that’s when you play your best football,” Rashford said of the Brazil legend.
Playing with the kind of grace and verve that made Ronaldo so mesmerising, Rashford has become a key figure for club and country, helping United win the FA Cup in 2016, then the League Cup and Europa League in 2017.
He also became the youngest player to represent England at a European Championship when he featured at Euro 2016.
But for all the accolades Rashford has enjoyed for his footballing achievements so far, his greatest legacy could be his contribution to the next generation.
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