Play­ers want to connect but fans’ in­stant anger can prove a prob­lem

Clubs should do more to help deal with the worst of so­cial me­dia, writes Paul MacInnes

The Observer - Sport - - SPORT FOOTBALL PREMIER LEAGUE -

Af­ter Michy Bat­shuayi scored two late goals to help Chelsea beat Wat­ford in the Pre­mier League, the striker took to Twit­ter. Us­ing the quote tweet func­tion he re­posted a re­mark by user @dan­ndude10 and then em­bel­lished it. “I’ll eat my shit if Michy Bat­shuayi wins us this game,” the orig­i­nal tweet read. “Bon ap­petit,” replied the Bel­gian, who then added a flour­ish of two emo­jis in the shape of a poo.

In re­cent weeks, the striker is not alone in hav­ing re­sponded to strangers on­line. When Manch­ester City’s Ben­jamin Mendy was in­jured in Septem­ber the jour­nal­ist Dun­can Cas­tles spec­u­lated as to the ex­tent of the full­back’s in­jury. “Con­cern is that City’s sole spe­cial­ist left back has rup­tured an ACL,” Cas­tles tweeted. “If so pos­si­ble 9 months re­hab process.” Four hours later, Mendy quoted Cas­tles and replied: “Your bio says jour­nal­ist so why you speak like grad­u­ated doc­tor? no one has test to see if rup­tured ACL or not, even I don’t know lol.” Mendy was later in­formed the in­jury had been ex­actly as Cas­tles – a for­mer sci­en­tist who in fact has a PhD and so is a “grad­u­ated doc­tor” – had de­scribed.

Last week Liver­pool’s De­jan Lovren ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing worse than a med­i­cal di­ag­no­sis be­ing bro­ken to him by a re­porter. The de­fender revealed he had re­ceived a death threat on In­sta­gram. Fol­low­ing a poor per­for­mance against Tot­ten­ham, a user had mes­saged Lovren, claim­ing he was “gonna mur­der ur fam­ily u Croa­t­ian prick”. The player re­sponded by post­ing a video on the site: “I don’t mind when peo­ple talk shit about me, it says more about them!” he said. “But I can­not ig­nore when my fam­ily is threat­ened. I just can’t and won’t ac­cept that.”

What ef­fect does so­cial me­dia have on foot­ballers? It’s not a question that is of­ten asked. As users we are fa­mil­iar with the im­ages ath­letes project: of cel­e­bra­tion af­ter vic­tory, pos­i­tive think­ing af­ter de­feat, of hard work and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion in the gym.

For in­ter­na­tional stars such as Cris­tiano Ron­aldo or Paul Pogba we see their com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity, the posts in which they mar­ket their new boots or un­der­pants. We also see play­ers’ mo­ments of in­famy, such as the ho­mo­pho­bic re­marks made by Serge Aurier be­fore he joined Tot­ten­ham and those of An­dre Gray, now of Wat­ford, which came to light in 2016 four years af­ter he made them. But the flow of dig­i­tal con­tent doesn’t go only one way. As much as foot­ballers are fol­lowed across the world, they are also talked about, their lives ob­served, an­a­lysed and dis­sected.

Ade­bayo Ak­in­fenwa is a striker for Wy­combe but he is bet­ter known as “The Beast”. At 1.8m and 102kg Ak­in­fenwa is, to put it mildly, a unit. He is also witty and vol­u­ble and Ak­in­fenwa has used his tal­ents to build a profile that ex­tends beyond his goalscor­ing in the lower leagues. So­cial me­dia have been cen­tral to that; Ak­in­fenwa has 198,000 fol­low­ers on Twit­ter and more than three-quar­ters of a mil­lion on In­sta­gram.

“I think when I first got on it there was noth­ing re­ally be­hind it; you take out of it what you want,” he says. “I got on In­sta­gram first, for pic­tures, for ba­sics. But slowly and surely I re­alised it em­pow­ers you. As I’ve gone on us­ing it I know the power it brings for your­self. And we now know ev­ery­thing is mov­ing that way. How I see it, as a foot­baller we’re just smaller ver­sions of a news­pa­per.

“There’s two as­pects to how it works for foot­ballers. I’ve got two play­ers in my

‘I think: “You have searched out my page. Once I’ve blocked you, I won’t know who you are”’

Ade­bayo Ak­in­fenwa

team, they want to snap and pose for a pic­ture. For me I see it also be­ing about peo­ple tun­ing into you on­line, so you cre­ate a sched­ule. The more you use it the more you be­come a TV guide. Mon­day train­ing, Tues­day ev­ery other week a game. Wed­nes­day off. The peo­ple that are fol­low­ing me as a brand, I need to be giv­ing them vi­su­als. It’s a mas­sive thing in terms of what I want to do next. But ul­ti­mately it doesn’t de­fine me, it’s not some­thing that if I stopped my so­cial life would stop.”

Even for Ak­in­fenwa, how­ever, his so­cial me­dia ex­pe­ri­ence is not uniquely pos­i­tive. “I get abuse ev­ery sin­gle day on all my me­dia plat­forms,” he says. “Put a pic­ture holding a tro­phy, some­one will still find some­thing bad to say. For me the block but­ton, the delete but­ton, they are beau­ti­ful things. I think: ‘You have pur­posely searched out my page and abused me. Once I’ve blocked you, I won’t know who you are.’”

Ak­in­fenwa reg­u­larly gives pre­sen­ta­tions to younger pro­fes­sion­als about how best to use so­cial me­dia and deal with the con­se­quences. “One hun­dred per cent, the abuse af­fects play­ers,” he says. “What I keep say­ing is that in this world you can’t make ev­ery­one like you. But I’m a 35-year-old who’s been in the game 18 years. If I post now and peo­ple abuse me be­cause I’m fat or I’m play­ing in League Two, I know I’ve over­come peo­ple say­ing they wanted to shoot me be­cause I was black at 18.”

Any­body who fol­lows their club on so­cial me­dia, es­pe­cially Twit­ter, will know it’s not just prom­i­nent foot­ballers who re­ceive abuse. Nor do they nec­es­sar­ily re­ceive it di­rectly. Dur­ing and af­ter ev­ery match, some­one some­where will be the sub­ject of streams of in­vec­tive. It hap­pens in sta­di­ums, too, but not in the same way and ver­bal abuse is not per­ma­nent, avail­able to be read later or per­haps even searched for.

This year Ross Raisin pub­lished his novel A Nat­u­ral, about a young foot­baller strug­gling with his sex­ual iden­tity. Part of the story con­cerns a player who be­comes ob­sessed with what peo­ple are say­ing about him on the in­ter­net. His fix­a­tion ex­tends to the point where he starts writ­ing un­der an alias, post­ing in de­fence of him­self and crit­i­cis­ing oth­ers. Raisin says he does not know of play­ers who have gone quite that far but dur­ing his re­search he met many who could not stop read­ing what was said about them.

“It is very com­mon and it was a real is­sue for a lot of the play­ers I met,” he says. “Even one of the man­agers I spoke to con­fessed to do­ing it. It’s very dif­fi­cult to re­sist. You’re look­ing at your phone and the world is out there; why are you not go­ing to look out into the world?

“There is very lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of how it might af­fect play­ers psy­cho­log­i­cally but they are as hu­man as any­one else. They are not any more con­fi­dent or less likely to be af­fected by what they might read about them­selves. They just might have more ar­mour.”

The na­ture of pro­fes­sional foot­ball, so of­ten driven by out­ward con­fi­dence and machismo, means play­ers are un­likely to ad­mit to the ad­verse ef­fects of crit­i­cism. Which means it will not be talked about. “Most of the peo­ple I spoke to had not re­ceived any sup­port,” Raisin says. “This is a process of ed­u­ca­tion that needs to go on for years. It needs to start at a young age. Most play­ers have been in the sys­tem for years and are only used to that world. Things may be im­prov­ing but I think that the em­pha­sis is on work­ing out any prob­lems phys­i­cally. The most im­por­tant out­come is a good re­sult on the pitch.”

Each pro­fes­sional club will take their own ap­proach to sup­port­ing their play­ers in is­sues re­gard­ing men­tal health and in re­cent years, thanks to cam­paigns such as Time to Change and the ad­vo­cacy of for­mer play­ers such as Clarke Carlisle and Stan Col­ly­more, the is­sue has re­ceived greater at­ten­tion.

With re­gards to so­cial me­dia, how­ever, it ap­pears most in­for­ma­tion re­ceived by play­ers is di­rected to­wards avoid­ing scan­dal. Lit­er­a­ture pro­vided by the Pro­fes­sional Foot­ballers’ Association ad­vises them to “avoid com­ment­ing on mat­ters of a sen­si­tive na­ture whether they be foot­ball re­lated or not”, but makes no men­tion of how to en­gage with the com­ments of oth­ers on mat­ters that might be equally sen­si­tive.

Foot­ballers are not alone in re­ceiv­ing abuse on­line and in­creas­ingly it ap­pears to be a de­fault char­ac­ter­is­tic of the medium. But foot­ball is a hugely pop­u­lar sport and that pop­u­lar­ity is in­creas­ingly driven by on­line ac­tiv­ity. It’s not out­landish to sug­gest play­ers might be ex­posed in a way few other peo­ple are.

With the op­por­tu­ni­ties for self­pro­mo­tion pro­vided by In­sta­gram and Twit­ter, plat­forms will con­tinue to be a lure for many, es­pe­cially while the con­se­quences are not so eas­ily un­der­stood. Per­haps play­ers might do well to con­sider the words of Jür­gen Klopp who, in the af­ter­math of the Lovren in­ci­dent, of­fered these thoughts. “I can­not say don’t do it be­cause, even for clubs, there are a lot of things we have to do on so­cial me­dia,” he said. “It’s part of the role. And it’s not bad, it’s just over­es­ti­mated. You think it’s the truth.

“That’s our prob­lem in this world, you read some­thing and think: ‘Oh my God. That’s it.’ But in the real world if I read some­thing about my neigh­bour I would go to his house and say: ‘Is it right or not?’ [On so­cial me­dia] we take it like it is – that’s what I don’t like about it.”

All a Twit­ter (clock­wise from top): Ade­bayo Ak­in­fenwa of Wy­combe, Ben­jamin Mendy of Manch­ester City and Chelsea’s Michy Bat­shuayi make a lot of use of so­cial me­dia.

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