Saturday 18 November 2017

OMG! Emoji furore makes great tools of jealous old hacks as well as marketing gurus

Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

There comes a time when a man must stand up and be counted, when he must cast aside trivialities and address the really important issues of the day. In other words, it's time to tackle the Paul Pogba emoji situation.

It's easy enough to dismiss the statement by Manchester United's group managing director Richard Arnold that "this emoji is another great tool for our supporters to connect with the club through a digital environment," as raw and unrefined weapons-grade bollocks. You don't need to take the piss out of Arnold's statement and United's 'Pogba makes emoji Twitter history' story and the player's "Let's have some fun and kick some ass at #pogba," tweet. They're giving it away.

Yet silly and all as this marketing bumpf was, it was only in the ha'penny place as regards bullshit compared to the attempts by various pundits to pretend that Pogba's ropey performance against Liverpool was directly caused by the emoji launch.

Pogba's concession of a penalty gave every cliché-monger in existence the chance to wag their finger and strike a blow on behalf of real football values from the days before social media. We were told that Alex Ferguson wouldn't tolerate a player having his own emoji. Of course not. Just like Bill Shankly never allowed his players to frequent internet chat-rooms and Matt Busby adopted a zero tolerance policy on the use of mobile phones during training.

The most annoying thing about this rush to blame Pogba's poor performance on a publicity stunt which the player probably didn't give a second thought to once he took the field is that had Pogba played well we'd no doubt have been told that the emoji had 'given him that little extra bit of motivation which made all the difference'. In reality it didn't make any difference either way. It just made the pundits involved sound like oul fellas at a match insisting that the full-forward is having a bad game because he's wearing white boots or has had streaks put in his hair or gave an interview to the paper during the week.

There's a puritan streak in some journalists which leads to them getting the hump over things like this. David Beckham's entanglements with the world of celebrity, Cristiano Ronaldo's gratuitous good looks and attention to his hair, even Robbie Keane's move to LA, lead to the finger being wagged. There have even been disapproving reportorial tweets about the O'Donovan brothers having the temerity to appear on The Graham Norton Show.

These sour comments are perhaps understandable enough. A lot of sports journalists are middle-aged men. We're getting on, the looks and the hair are going, the music is too loud and tuneless these days and no-one is chanting our name in stadiums. A certain grumpiness and begrudgery disguised as plain-speaking common sense is perhaps inevitable. And nothing makes an easier target than the ancillary fame-connected activities of sportsmen. Here we can give our jealousy free rein and pretend it's really concern. We let on to be worried about the negative effect of fame on Beckham, of fun on the O'Donovans and of emojis on Pogba. But jealousy is what it is.

In reality the social media people can bring out a new emoji every week from now till the end of the season for Paul Pogba and he'll still end up being one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, as he's proved himself to be over the last couple of months. There isn't a team in Europe who wouldn't want to have him on board.

The irony of the whole furore was that people who set out to deride the emoji ended up by claiming an importance for it beyond the wildest dreams of the digital marketeers. It may be only a tiny icon but the emoji apparently possesses the power to make a top sportsman give a terrible performance. It's basically the voodoo doll of the 21st century. Conor McGregor's next opponent is no doubt working on a little beardy ginger-haired version at this very moment.

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