WORLD CUP TALK: Golden boy Rashford deserves the Golden Boot

England's Marcus Rashford kneels to the ground to celebrate scoring against Wales at the World Cup.
England's Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring against Wales at the World Cup. (PHOTO: Reuters/Peter Cziborra)

MARCUS RASHFORD is just a footballer again, for now. It will not last. It cannot last. The irrepressible force for good has more hyphens than an entitled member of the British aristocracy, except the forward brings actual value to society.

He’s a charity-campaigning footballer. He’s a football-playing activist. He provides food for the poorest in council estates and humiliates the richest in parliament. He doesn’t just mix sport and politics, he lives there, operating in the spaces between the two and sniffing out opportunities, just as he did against Iran and Wales.

Rashford is all things to all people, to the benefit of thousands, if not millions, but to the detriment of himself. The 25-year-old was so busy presenting gifts to others that he temporarily mislaid his own. And it was a travesty, as karma effectively turned into a VAR control booth, sucking joy and positivity from those who provide it.

How ironic, then, that Rashford has found his form in Qatar. The World Cup with a grim human rights record has showcased the rediscovered talents of a man devoted to the basic rights of others.

When Rashford is afforded the opportunity to just be a footballer, to be one of the best of his generation, to harness his full skillset and unleash those hyphens – he’s essentially a wide forward-No.10-false No.9-striker – he can guide England into the knockout stages. He can score three goals in three games. He can be a Golden Boot contender. He can be all of these things, if he’s allowed to just be.

Since the pandemic, Rashford has been anything but a footballer. A poster boy for left-wing politicians, an irritant for right-wing politicians, a totemic presence, a demonic distraction, a martyr for the poor and a rich hypocrite, he has had more labels than goals. He convinced the British government to secure free school meals for the less fortunate, but couldn’t secure a regular place at Manchester United.

Even international football seemed unable to accommodate or protect Rashford the footballer. He was the one who missed a penalty in the Euro 2021 Final. He was the one singled out for racist abuse after missing the penalty. He delayed treatment on a shoulder injury to play at the Euros and was rewarded with a string of substitute cameos and a defaced mural in his Manchester hometown.

Domestic football had little time for Rashford the footballer either. He was the forgotten understudy in Cristiano Ronaldo’s pantomime. He was sacrificed in a tactical battle of wills between a Portuguese colossus and a coaching stop-gap.

Rashford became a string of contradictions; the inspirational son of a black single mother and a victim of systemic racism, a social activist on the political stage and a has-been at the Theatre of Dreams. He was the council estate kid made good and washed up at 25. He was unbreakable and broken.

Whatever he was, he was no longer just a footballer.

England manager Gareth Southgate (left) hugs Marcus Rashford as he is substituted after scoring two goals in the World Cup match against Wales.
England manager Gareth Southgate (left) hugs Marcus Rashford as he is substituted after scoring two goals in the World Cup match against Wales. (PHOTO: Eddie Keogh - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Rehab at Man United continues in Qatar

Until he was. Again. For the first time in a few years, Rashford was allowed just to be. At United, Eric ten Hag put common sense before the cult of celebrity and put Rashford before Ronaldo. The forward repaid the faith with 10 goals in all competitions. More importantly, he contributed pace and purpose to a side that had previously lacked both. The Red Devils are slowly rediscovering their identity again, along with their forward.

Intriguingly, the identity of Southgate’s England remains either a fascinating or infuriating work in progress, depending on the time of day, but this fickle and fluid debate is a happy problem for Rashford to have.

In the first-half against Wales, Rashford and Phil Foden found themselves cutting inside from their respective flanks and essentially getting in each other’s way. England clicked only in the second half, once Foden was switched to his preferred left and Rashford operated on the right. But the United forward looked largely comfortable throughout.

His free kick came from his right foot, his second from his left foot and he won back possession on the right flank to contribute to Foden’s goal. Southgate has a selection dilemma to settle between Foden, Mason Mount and perhaps even Raheem Sterling against Senegal, but Rashford’s productivity makes the manager’s decision a little easier.

The forward is providing and scoring goals in different positions and line-ups, maintaining a level of consistency that should ensure his selection against Senegal and increase his chances of adding to his three-goal tally in the chase for the Golden Boot.

Not that he’ll be overly fussed about personal accolades. Rashford just isn’t wired that way. He’s the antithesis of the man he’s replaced at Manchester United. When Rashford scores for his country, he looks for his teammates. When Ronaldo does likewise, he looks for the cameras; horses for courses and all that.

Honestly, Qatar 2022 is lucky to have Rashford. A tournament that has exploited the underprivileged for political gain scarcely deserves the chance to host an empathetic young man who has exploited his privilege to help others. But here we are. The most political of sporting events has allowed the forward to put politics aside for a bit.

Rashford is just a footballer again and it’s lovely to watch, providing a welcome, cleansing sensation after the relentless sportswashing cycles. The Golden Boot would be a fitting reward for a thoroughly decent human being, but not a necessary one.

Unlike this particular World Cup, Rashford’s reputation is already golden.

Rashford is just a footballer again and it’s lovely to watch, providing a welcome, cleansing sensation after the relentless sportswashing cycles.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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