‘The badge is what gave me the strength to be out there’

The young man, once famous for wearing an Arsenal shirt, is now the face of the Premier League club’s new kit.

In June 2020, Aston Mack was pictured in Gunners yellow at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Just over two years later, the 33-year-old is sitting next to Arsenal midfielder Martin Odegaard in a posh Baltimore hotel for an exclusive interview with ESPN to mark the launch of a new all-black jersey – and he can’t believe it.

“I want you to know that the fangirl in me is screaming because I’m sitting next to Martin,” Mack said with a grin. “It’s true. The guy can do a dummy kick and make the whole world smile, okay?

“It’s overwhelming. I’m dreaming, please don’t pinch me.”

Mack founded the Orlando Freedom Fighters following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The group aims to organize and support protests against injustice and Mack wears his Arsenal shirt to events.

“The badge gave me the power to be out there — never when I put my gear on has anyone brought up my race because once I put it on, I’m a Gooner and that’s all that matters,” Mack said.

Local Orlando Gooners reached out to Mack via social media before the club itself reached out to the University of Central Florida graduate to further its fight for social justice.

“We’re often ignored on the issues that we deal with, especially by the government, by politicians,” says Mack. “People don’t want to see the evil side of our culture, our world.

“For Arsenal to come in and say, ‘Hey, this is important, we’re going to shine a light on it, we’re not going to shy away from these issues, that’s valuable, that’s what we stand for’, that’s really important. It really gets a lot of people excited and energetic. It gives us hope.”

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Premier League clubs’ decision to kneel before games was one of the most iconic moments of Project Restart, the coda of the 2019/20 season following a forced hiatus due to COVID-19.

There are some who believe that the gestures’ effectiveness has diminished over time. A few players – including Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha – declined to participate or took a different approach. Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso points to the ‘No place for racism’ campaign badge that adorns all top-flight shirts because, as he said last September, he believes kneeling “loses a little bit of strength”.

“We know how big the sport is, how big the football is and especially for young players growing up to see footballers, to see that idols represent something like that, that’s a good thing,” Odegaard said.

“This is how we change, show good ways and help, it’s important for me in particular … I know [young people] look at me and look up to me It’s important for me to set a good example for them and try to influence them.”

Odegaard is widely rumored to be the front runner to become the club’s captain for the coming season and if so, the Norwegian playmaker will be Arsenal’s representative in wider player talks across the league over continuing the BLM stance.

The issue was raised even more sharply for those linked with Arsenal after winger Bukayo Saka was one of three England players to be racially slurred on social media after missing penalties as Gareth Southgate’s side in the lost the Euro 2020 final to Italy on penalties last summer.

Odegaard was briefly back as a Real Madrid player – between his loan deal and a permanent £30m deal later in the year – when Saka was targeted.

“It was just sad to be honest,” Odegaard said. “It’s crazy that these things still happen, but they do and that’s the reality. We must try to change that. It’s very easy, especially on social media, for people to say and say stupid things because you can hide.

“That’s life at the moment – it’s just because of social media but we have to try to change that and hopefully there’s something we can do.

“Everyone supported him. I was back in Madrid at the time, I started pre-season there, so I just texted him and showed my support that way. I think he knows how much we love him and us taking care of him here, so I hope he felt that.” Support.”

Saka, Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe are three youngsters who had high expectations last season when Arsenal woefully failed to qualify for the Champions League, but the additions of Fabio Vieira, Gabriel Jesus and Marquinhos – with Manchester City’s versatile Oleksandr Zinchenko likely to follow – will ease that pressure.

“It definitely helps to get some new players and make the squad a bit bigger,” said Odegaard. “At the end of last season we were maybe a little short. That will help us. We had a lot of good seasons last year and we improved during the season. This year we need to take another step and I think the signings will help us to do that.”

Jesus inevitably attracted a lot of attention. A £45million newcomer from City, Jesus has both the goalscoring record and the experience of winning trophies that could transform the Gunners. A key factor in his success will be whether he can communicate with Odegaard, the creative heartbeat of the team.

“I’ve only been training with him for a few days now, but it doesn’t take long to see that he has a lot of qualities,” said Odegaard. “I think he will bring a lot of good things to the team. I’ve seen him play for Man City a lot and yes I think we’re lucky to have him. I’m really excited to play and work with him.” , I think it might be fun.

“You see a lot in training to see what he’s like. Striker, they want different things, but you just have to watch him in training to see where he wants the ball. My job is to feed him and trying to get him to score goals.” I want to do that. I have to learn his movements, how he wants the ball, where he wants the ball and so on. It’s going to take a little while, but you see what it’s like in practice and I think it’ll be okay.”

Arsenal left Baltimore on Sunday night before heading to Orlando for the second leg of their pre-season tour of the United States. There is growing optimism within the group that another season of progress awaits.

“The Top 4 is a big deal for us,” said Odegaard. “I won’t lie, that’s how we want to be [we want to] Improvement on last season, top 4, maybe a trophy. That would be good.”

Mack intervened. “Top 4 is the bare minimum,” he said.

With a smile, Odegaard replied: “The pressure is on now… we have to deliver.” ‘The badge is what gave me the strength to be out there’

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