WHEN Ryan Giggs exploded into the public consciousness at Manchester United in the early nineties, he was shielded from the glare of the media by the club.
United boss Alex Ferguson ensured media engagements with the precocious winger were heavily regulated. It is impossible to imagine a similar situation occurring today such is modern players’ apparently incessant desire for self-promotion, allied to the increased demands of sponsors, media and supporters.
It was on Twitter where Giggs was identified as the Premiership player who had an affair with reality television personality Imogen Thomas. The Welshman’s attempts to conceal his identity extended to taking out a privacy injunction, which banned traditional media outlets from naming the footballer. Twitter rendered the injunction futile, with over 75,000 users of the site naming Giggs as the player in question.
Twitters emergence has given media and supporters unprecedented access to prominent footballers. Provocation is something players who use the site have come to expect. The site gives fans unrivalled access to their idols, it also gives opposition supporters increased opportunity to provoke and abuse. Previously the provocation footballers are forced to endure was confined to that stemming from the terraces. With the notable exception of a karate-kicking Frenchman, players dealt with the vitriol with admirable restraint.
Ireland winger James McClean has had to endure a torrent of abuse on the site over his decision to declare for the Republic. The Sunderland player was forced to close his Twitter account after receiving sectarian death threats.
Angry Northern Irish supporters took to the site to voice their anger at the Derry-born player’s decision. The 23-year old received tweets threatening to “make sure he got shot” when he returned to Northern Ireland and branding him a “dirty little fenian b*****d”. McClean subsequently reopened his account against the wishes of Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill. The winger again closed his account after publicly criticising Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni on the site. McClean had tweeted that Trapattoni’s decision to leave him on the bench for a World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan was a “joke”. Given the winger’s recent refusal to wear a Remembrance Day poppy on his shirt, it’s probably a decision he doesn’t regret.
Twitter has certainly given us a greater insight into the thoughts of professional footballers. Chelsea captain John Terry’s criminal trial and Football Association (FA) hearing on charges of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand attracted much comment from players involved.
First Rio Ferdinand retweeted a message branding Chelsea left back Ashley Cole a “choc ice” over the player’s evidence in support of his club captain during his trial. Cole then branded the FA a “bunch of t*ts” after the association accused him of giving dishonest evidence at Terry’s hearing. Both Ferdinand and Cole were subsequently fined by the FA for their tweets.
In the surreal world of modern football players can now gain notoriety for their exploits on Twitter rather than the pitch. Take Arsenal’s Emmanuel Frimpong. The midfielder has made just 15 first-team appearances yet he boasts over 500,000 followers on the social networking site. Such has been his success that the 20-year-old now has his own ‘Dench’ clothing line. Frimpong recently fell foul of the FA following an anti-Semitic tweet made towards a Spurs fan.
Admittedly the Arsenal man had been provoked with the supporter tweeting that he hoped the midfielder broke his legs in the upcoming North London derby. Frimpong responded by calling the Spurs supporter “Yid scum”. The term is often used by Tottenham supporters themselves, in pride at the club's Jewish links. However, there is currently a campaign fronted by comedian and Jewish Chelsea fan David Baddiel aimed at stamping out its use at the club. The player subsequently received a £6,000 fine from the FA for the anti-Semitic nature of the tweet.
Footballers’ use of Twitter is just another symptom of the sport’s fusion with the culture of celebrity. The game has come to resemble a form of light entertainment rather than a sport - think professional wrestling but with more histrionics.
The seemingly endless stream of live televised football and blanket media coverage all leaves me a little cold. Visions of watching games on Ceefax and ‘looking away now’ because you didn’t want to know the scores live long in the memory. When news channels were reserved for reporting on South American earthquakes, rather than hamstring tears, transfers could occur at any time in the season and players remained enigmas.
Remember the classic Eric Cantona quote: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea”. Today’s players could learn a lot from the enigmatic Mr Cantona.
Colin Layde is a Journalism student at DIT