The Influential Game - Football and Charity

Football has an incredible influence on the world around it. With more countries part of FIFA than there are members of the UN, it is easy to see why. The modern game is often criticised by onlookers, supporters and even politicians for being a sport removed from the public, and one in which money conquers all. There is some weight to these arguments, but are they always accurate? The short answer would be no. Football has a long an intriguing history with charity stretching right back to the origins of its codification in 1863. From early public schools to the incredible free school meals campaign of Marcus Rashford - let's see how the beautiful game has tried to make the world benefit from its influence.


Football has been closely linked to charitable acts ever since its codification. As a sport, the original intentions of the game were never for financial profit. Gate receipts welcomed at the ever-increasing number of matches during the 1860s and 1870s could therefore be distributed the local charities. According to Vray Wamplew, the SFA was the pioneer of the charity match with regular fixtures occurring after the association's formation in 1873. Noting the arranged tie between representatives from Dumbarton and Glasgow, its raising of £100 for the Glasgow Western Infirmary in 1876 perhaps provided impetus to the later Glasgow Charity Cup.[1]

Following the success of charity fixtures north of the border, it was not long before English clubs and associations attempted to follow suit. In Sheffield, Lancashire and Birmingham, competitions were founded with the primary aim of providing much needed funds to various local institutions. Before long, the nation's governing body, the FA, would also help to redistribute its growing wealth to a number of charities. Vamplew writes that the FA Cup semi-final between Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday in 1882 produced a larger gate than had been anticipated, with the £70 surplus being handed to the mayors of Blackburn and Sheffield.

Charities were not always solely recipients of financial aid but would also take an active role in using the game to help their situation. Perhaps the most notable example of this is in the establishment of Celtic FC in 1887-8. Intended to alleviate poverty in the Catholic east end of Glasgow, the club was designed with the intention of raising funds for the charity of its founding father, Brother Walfrid - the Poor Children's Dinner Table. Such moral reasoning for the foundation of an entire club are perhaps distantly removed from the modern day arguments which surround 'new' clubs like RB Leipzig in Germany.

As with many things in football's history, even Celtic's moral beginnings would be quickly tarnished within 10 years. Vamplew is quick to determine that the initial 'philanthropic ambitions' fell away under the weight of 'commercial considerations'. Virtually ceasing its donations and becoming a limited company, its moral decline was perhaps mirrored by the wider shift of the game towards professionalism.

In spite of this, football would still have a charitable element deeply rooted within the game seen clearly by its reaction to the Ibrox disaster in 1902. The FA would donate £500 to the disaster fund and the game's replay (played at Villa Park) saw its proceeds, as well as others, also donated to the fund.[2] £3000 was gathered in total to go alongside the SFA's contribution of another £3000. It was not just disasters in the game which drew the attention of the nation's football associations. Indeed, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 shook the nation to its core. The Football Association council would approve a donation of 200 guineas to the Lord Mayor's fund and offer the gross receipts from the Charity Shield tie between Blackburn and QPR.[3]

The Charity Shield is perhaps football's most recognisable contribution to society. Started in 1908, with a tie between Manchester United and QPR, its replay saw an impressive 50,000 spectators cram into Stamford Bridge. The annual fixture took the place of the previously played Sheriff of London Charity Shield which had been contested between the leading Amateur (usually Corinthian) and Professional clubs. However, after the Amateur Football Association's split from the FA - the fixture would take on a new identity. Funds were distributed after the match and split between the opposing sides to give to charities of their choice as well as further contributions given to local charities.

Report on the funds raised during the 1908 Charity Shield [4]


To this day, the Charity Shield (now named the Community Shield) still provides local communities with invaluable funds to help support and manage initiatives and schemes across the UK. The 2019 edition saw £1.25m given to the two finalists (Liverpool and Manchester City) to provide funds for various charitable organisations and the money generated from the fixture was evenly distributed to each club who reached at least the first round of the previous year's FA Cup. Around £5000, it is intended to be used to help support social projects in each community. Two years earlier, London-based finalists Arsenal and Chelsea combined their money to help fund the relief work after the devastating Grenfell Fire.[5]

Women's football was intrinsically associated with charitable acts, too. Although played at a minor level before the First World War, the actions taken by Munitionettes during the later conflict helped raise vast amounts for the war effort and the veterans it left behind. Originally discouraged by the male-dominated establishment - the skill and guile of the players and their ability to raise large funds surprised many and led to an increase it crowds, culminating in a staggering 50,000 people at Goodison Park in 1920. Using the British Newspaper Archive it is not difficult to find reports of charitable donations closely linked to the women's game. A simple search found articles in the Shields Daily News and Newcastle Daily Chronicle reporting on £140 and £500 being gathered respectively.[6][7] Women's football has always retained this charitable side and is still closely linked to the community around it.

Throughout the 20th Century football was to continue in its efforts to raise funds for charity. Of course, amongst this, the game was continuing in its trend towards an increasingly commercialised and global product, much to the detriment of the game's 'purists'. Major disasters saw the game show the good it could do, as was the case following the Aberfan Disaster in 1966. Following the tragic deaths of 144 people including 116 children, Arsenal arranged a friendly with Cardiff City with all proceeds going to efforts to help the impacted families. It was not just in Wales that matches were played either. The sheer horror of the event saw clubs around the UK arrange fundraising games. This was the case in the Midlands when a Lockheed and Saltisford XI took on the might of Aston Villa at the Windmill Ground. Such fixtures were common for find as football took it upon itself to provide vital relief following a what many believed to be a lack of government support. Perhaps the most notable was at Ninian Park when a celebrity XI took on a Welsh international XI. A forerunner to SoccerAid?

A forerunner to SoccerAid? The Aberfan Disaster friendly

In more recent times, footballers and the game in general has seen many of its key individuals and clubs look to develop charitable schemes and raise money. For some critics, such gestures have been regarded as merely publicity stunts to help the player or club's image, but for others, the vital funds generated have provided a lifeline to thousands. An Independent article from 2008 excellently brought forward both of these arguments as it highlighted both the positive and negative points relating to football's role in charity. (Click here)

SoccerAid sees the positive elements on display for the millions of watching viewers. Established in 2006 by celebrities and football fans Robbie Williams and Jonathan Wilks, its primary aim is to raise money for the children's charity UNICEF. The 2020 edition alone raised an impressive £11.5m as the 'Rest of the World XI' defeated their English counterparts on penalties. A mixture of celebrities and ex-pros, the popularity of the individuals on display sees fans in their millions flock to the fixture or watch it on ITV. Such a scheme shows the power football, in particular, has is uniting people to understand a simple yet powerful message.

Today, it is hard to escape negative press around football and footballers. Money drives the game and mistakes made by individuals off the pitch are quick to be highlighted, often to grotesque degrees. However, the efforts of certain professionals to better the lives of others should not be forgotten. Many superstars in the Premier League and in other leagues around the world have charities formed in their names and donations have been contributed to various schemes in both the UK and in some players' home nations. In 2018, the BBC described Mohamed Salah's philanthropic efforts as 'breaking down barriers' in Egypt [8], whereas closer to home, Marcus Rashford's campaign to provide Britain's poorest children with meals over the holiday period has been noted as 'inspirational'.[9]

It was Marcus Rashford's campaign which unsurprisingly provided the inspiration for this article. As teachers ourselves (primary and secondary), The Football History Boys have seen first hand the immense benefits of free school meals to the children we teach. Rashford's aim is simple, that no child goes hungry. In a country as affluent as the UK, it is a relative disgrace that we are in this situation in the first place. After years of austerity and now the COVID pandemic, purse-strings are tighter than ever and children should not be the ones who suffer. We are fully in support of Marcus and hope England follows the example set by both the Scottish and Welsh governments in providing the most vulnerable in our society with support. 

Football and charity have a long and intriguing history and we have barely even scratched the surface. Indeed, covering all of it would take us far beyond the UK and into the philanthropic work of thousands from within the game around the world. Rashford has set the modern example which many footballers will be keen to follow and has inspired efforts from outside of the football community too. To see a player use his platform and own life experiences to influence opinion and change across the country is encouraging to see. Long may it continue!

*After publishing*

Even after publishing this article, a quick trip to Twitter helped to showcase the incredible work still being carried out around the UK in order to help those in need. Fans Supporting Foodbanks, Football Beyond Borders, The Football Foundation and the Free Kicks Foundation are just four examples of the tireless efforts being made to make people's lives that bit better. You can find links to these sites below in order to contribute or just find out more about their work. Football is the people's game. It's a universal language and seeing it being used in this way is brilliant.

Links to football charities

Fans Supporting FoodBanks - https://www.facebook.com/FansSupportingFooddbanks/
Rashford petition - https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/554276 
Football Beyond Borders - https://www.footballbeyondborders.org/
Football Foundation - https://footballfoundation.org.uk/
Free Kicks Foundation - https://www.freekicksfoundation.org/


Notes:

[1] Vray Vamplew and Joyce Kay, Beyond altruism: British football and charity, 1877–1914, Soccer and Society, Vol. 11 Issue 3, 2010
[2] Ben Jones and Gareth Thomas, Football's Fifty Most Important Moments, (Worthing: Pitch Publishing, 2020)
[3] Leeds Mercury, 20 April 1912
[4] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 03 October 1908
[5] Josh Challies, 'The prize money Man City will from earn facing Liverpool FC in Community Shield, Manchester Evening News, 04 August 2019
[6] Shields Daily News, 15 May 1917
[7] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 22 November 1917
[8] Marwan Ahmed, 'Mohamed Salah, the Liverpool superstar giving away thousands to help Egyptians', BBC Sport, 30 November 2018
[9] Patrick Butler and Sally Weale, 'He does not give up': how Marcus Rashford became a hero to school kids, The Guardian, 23 October 2020

©The Football History Boys, 2020

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