Twitter is a hotbed of football discussion. Fans use the platform to watch highlights, stay up to date with transfer news and get their fix of football content. It is an ever-growing part of modern football culture. Mainstream media outlets, as well as clubs themselves, are jumping to use the social media machine to engage with consumers. Twitter has become an open forum for football discussion, but has it ruined the discourse around the world’s favourite sport?
Since its creation in 2006, Twitter has quickly become one of the most popular and influential social media platforms in the world. Its impact on pop culture, politics and business has been undeniably seismic, and its impact on football is no different.
In the time before social media, football fans had a limited voice. Conversations and opinions were shared in the papers or in the pub. Football phone-ins and fan forums were the only real lines that supporters had to their clubs, to vent their feelings and frustrations.
Twitter changed that. As the former global sports chair of Twitter Alex Trickett puts it, ‘Fundamentally, it has changed the relationship between the fan and the team’.
For the first time, millions of fans had a voice. Twitter, with its 340 million users, is a unique platform. It provides a minute by minute update of people’s thoughts and feelings, allowing millions of users to join a live discussion.
It is the perfect platform for football. It became the perfect tool for the armchair fan. With the game on the TV and a phone in hand, everyone became an expert. During the 2016-2017 campaign, there were over 142 million tweets about Premier League matches. That’s over 370,000 per game, 4,000 per minute of football.
Most of football Twitter is what you’d expect: match updates, highlights, reports and jokes. For the majority of users, it is their main source of information for football or a place to share their thoughts.
However, over the last few years, football has become far more tribal than ever before, with social media playing a large part in that shift. This tribalism has had a clear impact on how fans interact with one another.
Before the days of 140 (now 280) characters and blue ticks, fans would have their debates among friendship groups and social circles. A group of mates with differing allegiances would mock each other’s club’s failing and misfortunes. This normal social setting forced people to be civil, to listen and accept the views of others.
Fast forward to 2020, and rival fans attack each other online during matches, a virtual cousin of the hooliganism that overshadowed football in the 1980s. Twitter has brought the age of the keyboard warrior, the anonymity afforded has done away with any sense that civility is required.
The light-hearted ribbing and jokes from work colleagues and friends have been replaced with bile spat by strangers online, fuelled by an ever-intensifying tribalistic nature.
And the hatred isn’t exclusively for rival fans. Fans of the same club create factions within themselves, intensified by opinions shared on Twitter.
Arsenal’s fanbase was left hugely fractured during Arsène Wenger’s final years as manager. The #WengerOut brigade lambasted and abused their once great leader on Twitter, ArsenalFan TV (now AFTV) gathered its largest traction through incoherent rants and expletive-filled monologues.
The noise created by these people on Twitter created a tense atmosphere at the Emirates; a clear division of those singing in support of Wenger and those calling for his head. Although the majority of the fanbase would tell you they wanted Wenger to stay, the endless screams of Twitter users would have led you to believe that they were the true voice of the fans.
Twitter blurs the lines of what the majority think. Opinions are given a level playing field and appear to have more weight now than ever. On Twitter, opinions are king.
And you must have an opinion.
These days, everything is black or white, right or wrong. Every debate has two sides and you must pick one: Messi or Ronaldo, leave or remain, blue and black or white and gold. Twitter has done away with debate or concession. Fans have become single-minded in their so-called support.
There is no room for the appreciation of a rival on football Twitter. Ardent Cristiano Ronaldo fans will contrive to convince you that Lionel Messi is a fraud, a one-trick pony who had fluked his way to success. Manchester United fans will preach that Pep Guardiola is not a tactical genius, instead, he is a chancer, bouncing around from mega-rich club to mega-rich club, buying his way to success.
There is no middle ground on Twitter. There is little room for a world that appreciates both Messi and Ronaldo as two of the greatest talents the world has ever seen, one must be ranked higher.
The world is moving headlong into an area of clickable, bite-sized content. No one has time for the bigger picture. A two-minute clip is all that is needed to judge a player forever, a quick comparison of the stats has become concrete evidence.
Twitter has borne a fan with a blind single-mindedness. A fan who will blindly ignore any shortcomings of their own club, yet regularly call out others for their misgivings. Dele Alli will get abuse from any number of Premier League fans should he be caught diving, yet those same fans will be quick to defend one of their own in the face of irrefutable evidence.
The examples are endless. Recently, all Premier League fans have been quick to criticise the likes of Norwich, Bournemouth, and Newcastle for placing non-playing staff on the government’s furlough scheme, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Those same fans would be the first to defend their own club’s decision to do the same.
Manchester City’s fanbase seems unwilling to accept that their club had done any wrong in light of their European ban. For them, they weren’t a club backed by oil-rich, human rights abusing owners, brazenly and knowingly flaunting the rules. Instead, they were the plucky underdog at the centre of a scandal aimed at clipping their wings.
The days of criticising one’s own club are dying. So too are the days of forgive and forget. Twitter is unforgiving and unforgetting.
God forbid a fan, pundit or player choose to change their mind. Once an opinion is out in the Twittersphere, it remains forever.
Cesc Fàbregas received death threats following his move from Barcelona to Chelsea. The ex-Arsenal Spaniard had once stated he would rather die than play for the west London club.
The is no longer room for an apology or an admission of wrongdoing. When Liverpool admitted they were wrong to furlough their staff, the reversal of their decision was met with claims that it was just a PR stunt, that Liverpool only did it as a response to public criticism.
But surely that is the point? The club admitted they made a mistake and corrected it. Apparently, that is not enough for the modern fan to accept.
This level of cynicism is rife across Twitter. Any good deed or charity work publicised by a club or player is met with eye rolls, claims it is only being done for the cameras. So what if it is?
It must be said that not all football fans on Twitter act this way. It is the minority, but it’s a growing one.
Tribalism builds hate and hate leads to abuse.
Decorum and respect in football are dying at the hands of Twitter. When Manchester City announced that Guardiola’s mother had lost her life due to coronavirus recently, there were messages from United and Liverpool fans celebrating it, a stick to beat a rival with.
Jokes and taunts about the Hillsborough disaster and the Munich air crash are on the rise. So too is racism.
Social media platforms have come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, for failure to deal with trolls and abusers, and Twitter has become a valuable resource to those who seek to abuse others.
It provides a direct line to players, a direct line through which abuse can constantly be sent. In the 2014-2015 season, over 134,000 abusive tweets were registered, containing racist, homophobic and sexist messages. Twitter was routinely identified by players as the platform where they receive the most persistent abuse, according to Musa Okwonga, writing for the Guardian in 2019.
Twitter has provided abusers with an anonymity that is hard to combat. Previously, the only anonymity that could be granted was the veil of a crowd in the terraces, but as football has attempted to crack down on abuse in stadiums, abusers simply move online.
This makes it difficult for organisations such as Kick It Out or the FA to police and report, as culprits can sometimes be unidentifiable, or living across the world.
However, the rise of racism online isn’t solely Twitter’s fault, a sentiment to which Eni Aluko, former England, Chelsea and Juventus footballer, attests. She suggests looking at the social climate: ‘Look at Trump, Brexit…’, the world is seeing more extreme views. Twitter may simply be reflecting the way of the world.
Nevertheless, it has become the go-to platform for abusers, trolls and those who wish to spread hate. It is the perfect tool to reach players directly and say things no one would dare say to another’s face.
Social media, and Twitter in particular, has undoubtedly changed the discussion around football. It has given a platform for fans to become journalists, analysts and content creators. It can have a hugely positive impact on the game and the world, raising awareness of charitable causes, becoming a forum for solidarity in times of tragedy and allowing communities to form.
That said, like any place online, it has a dark side that is slowly creeping into the mainstream, normalising the hate and the tribalism. Perhaps it’s time to act.