LONDON — When Marcus Rashford takes the field Friday, he will do so in an empty stadium.
But the Manchester United soccer star will not be short of supporters, having forced the British government into an embarrassing climbdown on an issue that’s seen him emerge as something of a lockdown hero.
Rashford, 22, pressured the government Tuesday into extending free school meals for poor children over the school summer break.
Having grown up in a cash-strapped household himself, Rashford has been highlighting the plight of the 1.3 million kids who rely on free school meals in the United Kingdom. For many, their desperate situation has become even worse during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is not about politics; this is about humanity,” the England striker wrote in an open letter to lawmakers Monday. “Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government finally caved after repeatedly rejecting Rashford’s plea to provide free meals in England, which had already been agreed to in Scotland and Wales.
The decision came hours before a parliamentary vote on the issue, which may have brought backlash from some of Johnson’s own Conservative lawmakers.
There will now be a “Covid summer food fund” worth some 120 million pounds (around $150 million), the prime minister’s spokesman told reporters.
The prime minister welcomed Rashford’s “contribution to the debate around poverty and respects he’s been using his profile as a leading sportsman to highlight important issues,” the spokesman told Sky News.
“This was never about me or you, this was never about politics,” Rashford tweeted in response. “This was a cry out for help from vulnerable parents all over the country and I simply provided a platform for their voices to be heard.”
Rashford burst into English soccer in 2016, scoring two goals in his debut for Manchester United and again during his first game for the national team, the youngest player in history to do so.
Although the Premier League is restarting this week, with Manchester United playing Tottenham Hotspur on Friday, no fans will be allowed in the bleachers. The British government has faced scathing criticism, having overseen the most coronavirus deaths in Europe, twice as high per capita as in the United States.
Rashford was also set to star for England this summer at Euro 2020 before the tournament was postponed for 12 months.
His club, Manchester United, has become widely disliked by opponents due to its dominance in the 1990s and the 2000s. But Rashford’s political and social platform have earned him respect that far transcends sporting affiliation.
He has related the campaign back to his own experiences growing up as one of five children of a single mother who struggled to feed them.
One quarter of the children in the U.K. who rely on free school meals have not received additional support while schools have been shuttered during the pandemic.
Rashford had already partnered with the charity FareShare to distribute 3 million meals a week, but said in his letter that “I recognize it’s just not enough.”
“Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we don’t course correct now,” he said.