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
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”’
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.