By Gregory Wakeman

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the U.K. to a standstill in the spring of 2020, schoolchildren across the country started going hungry. The free school dinners that millions of kids from lower-income families relied on had stopped.

A promising young soccer player from Manchester United — one of the world’s biggest sports clubs — decided to do something about it. Having benefited from the free dinner program at school as a boy growing up in Manchester with a single mom and four siblings, Marcus Rashford wanted to use his growing popularity to raise awareness.

The then 22-year-old contacted the poverty and food waste charity FareShare and, after a month, had helped to raise the £20 million required to feed the 400,000 people in Greater Manchester who relied on free school meals. Three months later, FareShare was feeding 4 million kids across the U.K.

“When he was doing his most high-profile work with the food banks during COVID, he was probably the most popular person in the country,” says renowned Manchester United author and producer Wayne Barton. “He’s from Manchester, he’s connected to the club, he’s been there since he was a young boy. Those things do give fans a greater connection.”

And Rashford kept going. In June 2020, he sent an open letter to the Conservative government, calling on them to end child poverty in the U.K. Then in September 2020, he set up his own End Child Food Poverty task force, working with charities and delivery companies to uphold recommendations from the National Food Strategy. This work led to a government funding package.

But Rashford’s soccer career was soon at a crossroads.

At the end of last season, Rashford’s situation at Old Trafford (Manchester United’s stadium) couldn’t have been more dire. Under interim manager Ralf Rangnick, the team were lifeless and just dull to watch. They finished a disappointing sixth in the table, with their lowest ever Premier League points tally.

Rashford’s soccer trajectory had started out strong: He joined the club’s academy at age 7, made his first team debut in February 2016 (at just 18), and scored in his first match for his country against Australia in May of the same year. But in the following years, there were some hiccups. In the summer of 2021, he was sidelined with a shoulder injury that took him off the pitch for three months. By the end of the 2021/2022 season there was concern that Rashford might not reach his potential.

Some wondered if Rashford’s activism was impacting his development as a player.

“He had a bad patch and many were writing him off even though we could see he had talent. Those of us who knew he had the talent wanted to see if he had the character and we were wanting him to come good,” says Barton.

And good came — in the form of manager Erik ten Hag, who was appointed in April 2022 and tapped into Rashford’s character, helping him to turn things around.

“A big element to Rashford’s upturn has obviously been he’s playing in a system where he knows what he’s doing a little bit more,” explains Jon Mackenzie, a writer and presenter for Tifo Football, which provides in-depth tactical breakdowns of the beautiful game. “Ten Hag has found solutions to the problems that Manchester United have had in the past. That’s shown up no better than with Marcus Rashford.”

And now, the 25-year-old Rashford is not just Manchester United’s talisman, at the top of his game in the 2022/2023 season. He’s also one of the deadliest finishers in Europe and — after scoring three goals in four games in January — was designated the Premier League’s Player of the Month (and it’s not the first time he’s worn that crown).

Meanwhile, off the pitch, Rashford has been working to set up campaigns to provide the homeless with essential winter items and to improve reading for vulnerable children — in addition to bringing awareness to the poverty gap. He’s also been praised by former President Barack Obama, and awarded a prestigious Member of the Order of the British Empire.

“His work is important, especially now, in a moment where people try to say football and politics should be separate when we all know sports and politics are more interconnected than ever,” Barton says. “He’s using his profile and position to create a positive change. At a time of global crisis for more reasons than one, it’s such an important message for the next generation.”

Mackenzie appreciates Rashford’s authenticity in his efforts, especially those in the area where he was raised. “It’s so powerful, because in the current political context it’s often the most vulnerable people in society who get brushed under the carpet.”

For Barton, Rashford’s impact has been cathartic for the club. “It is always an emotional journey when a player that comes through the ranks starts to hit landmarks, such as appearances and goals.”

Rashford’s future now looks brighter than ever. On the pitch, he has all the qualities to become a future Manchester United captain. One day he could even surpass fan favorite Wayne Rooney’s 253 strikes to become the club’s greatest ever goalscorer.

When the time comes to hang up his boots and retire, Rashford is so popular that if he were to change his mind and turn his attention to politics, there’s little doubt that people would line up in droves to vote for him. For now, Rashford, who is considered a national hero by his country, has enough on his plate. And thanks to his efforts, others do too.