I have always been a socially engaged person. As a 19-year-old, I was already a member of the players’ council of the Dutch national team, trying to improve our conditions.
In recent years I have come to realise that, as an athlete, you can make an impact by using your voice. Some athletes have a reach of millions of people. I am nowhere near that, but I do have a platform. I am a member of Common Goal, I am active on Instagram and Twitter and I sometimes appear on TV as an analyst — and I want to use that more and more to bring about social change.
That impulse has gradually increased. I read a lot of books, newspapers and magazines and have formed a world view that way. I try to be aware of what is going on outside the world of football, as well as in my own circles.
There are all kinds of important social issues right now. Three particularly appeal to me: climate change, inequality between men and women, and anti-racism.
My first real act was joining Common Goal in 2017. When I switched from Ajax to Manchester City, I started earning enough to live on for the first time. At the same time, I felt a responsibility to do something in that new situation, even though I obviously didn’t earn nearly as much as my male colleagues. I became a member of Common Goal, which tries to contribute to achieving the United Nations Global Goals. As a member, you donate one percent of your salary every year, and you can decide for yourself whether to give that amount to the general fund or to a specific organisation. I have been involved in training4changeS, an organisation in Stellenbosch, South Africa, from the beginning.
I recently published two opinion articles in de Volkskrant with Frank Huisingh and Roy Blokvoort of Fossil Free Football. These articles stemmed from our concerns about the climate.
We are in an existential crisis that affects us all, and football is no exception. If we do not take drastic measures, it will no longer be possible to play football in many places in 2050. By that time, one in four English football pitches will regularly be flooded, for example. There is still far too little action being taken, especially by governments and large companies. Some of those companies play an important role in football, such as airlines and banks that invest in the fossil fuel industry. They have no beneficial impact on the climate, even though they try to sell themselves that way. For instance, they claimed that last year’s men’s World Cup in Qatar was the first “climate-neutral World Cup”, but that is demonstrably false. That is greenwashing.
In our second article, we argued that football should ask itself whether it wants cryptocurrency companies as sponsors. We do not think it is wise to encourage people, especially young, vulnerable fans, to gamble. Moreover, mining those cryptocurrencies consumes a huge amount of energy.
Climate change is a hot topic. I have recently become involved in Champions for Earth and Football For Future. Through these organisations, I have learned a lot about football’s impact on the climate.
I don’t see myself as a climate evangelist. It is about education and awareness, and these are long-term processes. I try to live in an environmentally friendly way, such as not eating meat and not buying too much, and I belong to a sustainable bank and pension fund.
Last year, I was at a big protest march at the UN Climate Change Conference COP 26 in Glasgow. I think different forms of protest are needed and I try to do what I can, depending on the amount of time I can put into it.
It is remarkable that some people say politics and sport should be kept separate. That seems impossible to me. Just look at the background of the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic.
I am not only a footballer, but also a human being. I have opinions and I always carry them with me: on the football pitch and off it. I think it is unnatural to suppress these views just because you are a footballer. Players should be able to express themselves if they want to.
I think football should be for everyone. The leading organisations in football, such as FIFA and UEFA, should do their best to ensure that everyone feels welcome: whether you are white, black, male, female or non-binary, and regardless of your sexual orientation, origin or background.
In fact, I think players could speak out more often. Football is such a big, popular sport worldwide. It offers many opportunities to exert an influence and bring about positive changes. The England women’s team is a great example. When they won the EURO last summer, the players used this attention to make school football more accessible to girls.
In my opinion, activism can have a positive influence on your career. If you have other goals and activities besides football, it is easier to put your sporting achievements and everything else into perspective.
I admire Megan Rapinoe, who often speaks out publicly and always stands up for people who have less power. And I am a fan of Dutch politician Sylvana Simons, who has brought the issue of racism to wider attention. The fact that the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently apologised for our past involvement in slavery is partly thanks to her work.
I have sometimes wondered if I should go into politics, but it doesn’t attract me. Perhaps through other organisations, such as Common Goal, Fossil Free Football or FIFPRO, I can make my contribution to a nicer, more equal and fairer world.
In our series #CommunityChampion, we highlight a professional footballer’s activities that help impact the lives of other people. Discover more HERE.