Making the game beautiful: How social media is changing football and creating cult heroes like Bayo Akinfenwa

Yahoo Sport UK
Weighing in at 16 stone, Adebayo Akinfenwa also has a sizeable presence online.
Weighing in at 16 stone, Adebayo Akinfenwa also has a sizeable presence online.


Social media has changed football. Not in the way VAR will change football, obviously. But the impact of such a proliferation of information across multiple platforms in our interconnected, always-on world has genuinely redefined the parameters of sports coverage. Just look at Lewis Hamilton, who was recently caught in a headline-making crossfire over his decision to gut posts from Twitter and Instagram, seemingly in the aftermath of that idiotic response to a young relative’s decision to wear a pink dress.

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This is a sportsman whose public perception has floundered rather than thrived when presented with these new tools. Can anyone imagine Paul Pogba taking to Snapchat during his next press conference to pin ears onto Jose Mourinho’s face? However it’s used, social media’s impact across football has been all-consuming, with clubs embracing the possibilities for good and bad to harness the new financial muscle available. In recognition of the simple fact that more people aged between 18 and 34 consume sport on mobile than watch on TV, digital creativity has become profoundly important in the branding battle being waged online.

Teams are finding they can’t produce enough content like Liverpool’s excellent 125 Years to meet demand from fans. But they’ve also astutely realised that social media can be a tool to assess potential players, who, like Andre Gray and Kennedy, may have failed to grasp their limited reserves of common sense before typing. Ben Wright from communications agency Cicero, who produce reports on players for many global clients, including seven in the Premier League, explains the focus of their work: “Are they using social media late at night? Do they blur the boundaries of public and private? How have they changed over time as they have begun to earn more money?”

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The BBC cites a number of examples, including an investigation into an unnamed Premier League player who missed out on a big move because his digital footprint included multiple social media posts, dating back many years, that were either sexually explicit or offensive to opposition teams. Of course, footballers have also been compelled to get involved more directly and it seems certain that their daily training regime, beyond lengthy work on the pitch, now also features extensive social media coaching and filming to meet the ever more inventive output of their clubs.

Many footballers have recognised the potential of social media, both for their present and future careers, and defied the inevitable abuse that such platforms bring. Wycombe Wanderers’ striker Adebayo Akinfenwa is known for being absolutely massive in size but he’s also pretty big online. With 198,000 Twitter followers and approximately 750,000 on Instagram, he’s also a mentor to younger players and a sportsman contemplating what comes next and is unmoved by the kind of despicable trolling that targeted Dejan Lovren recently. “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,” explains Akinfenwa.

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Of course, footballers generally take to social media for quite prosaic reasons, most notably to goad other teams, managers and even players from the same club, as Rio Ferdinand was famously reported to have done when Wayne Rooney was banned from driving. Although this was later proved to be fake, it’s surely heartening to see such celebrated figures actually behave in much the same way as *normal* people, whether that be Dieumerci Mbokani getting stuck in a rollercoaster, Gary Neville being publicly shamed by Jamie Carragher or Michy Batshuayi‏ expertly trolling one of his many doubters.

As an extension of their powers, the media are now in the fairly fortunate position of having an entirely new content stream, which is not only freely available but very often sourced and published without them lifting a finger. An “unfortunate error” that saw Newcastle United described as “black and white scum” on Match of the Day 2 can go viral and make national headlines after being picked up on Twitter and with such an enormous audience and so much coverage, it makes for entertaining end-of-year round ups, alongside specific personal witticisms about the limitations of Wayne Rooney’s imagination or the stupendous cost of Neymar’s PSG transfer.

But the socialisation of this medium has impacted every area of society, most importantly the people who love and very nearly live for “the beautiful game”. Fans have not only been given the opportunity to communicate with and better understand their idols but also engage with them on a more equal footing. Sometimes this might be a relatively amusing and heart-warming tale, such as the recent campaign which saw Nottingham Forest defender Eric Lichaj’s girlfriend bombarded with pictures of dogs, or the hilarious and commendably creative meme that followed a photo of Marouane Fellaini‏’s face seemingly melting as he headed a ball. Alternatively, it provides a platform for the downright strange, a direct line to a fan’s favourite footballer as they contemplate leaving your club.

Clearly, social media has changed football. Is it a more rewarding and better place as a result? This is s a complex and divisive debate and one which will rage in pubs, government buildings, office blocks, schools and, of course, sporting venues across the land for years to come. Has it created an even more compelling, universal community, where people from across the world can share their passion for football? Despite the inevitable and infamous downsides, you’d have to say yes. Certainly, without social media, we might never have seen Steve McLaren’s final transformation from the “Wally with the brolly” to the “Sky Sports soothsayer”.


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