Social media and soccer: How do players deal with the obsession and abuse?

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Football had a complex relationship with social media even before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Its biggest strength is its biggest weakness: the real time, almost entirely unfiltered interaction between anyone, anywhere in the world. The likes of Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat theoretically offer an endless stream of opinion to simultaneously inspire, reinforce, undermine and exasperate its users.

Instant accessibility to this Pandora's box presents an ongoing problem to managers and players, one that will be heightened if and when the Premier League returns to complete the 2019-20 campaign -- estimates suggest that it could be anywhere from six to 12 months -- social media will be the only way players and fans can interact. This could intensify an issue Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster has witnessed in many locker rooms over the years as players get consumed by the feedback loop online.

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"For probably the past four or five years, I've seen young lads where a game finishes, and good, bad or indifferent, they are checking Instagram, Twitter to see what's gone on," Foster told ESPN.

"That gets into the back of your head. If you are playing a game and it's live, there could be hundreds of millions of people watching. That player, subconsciously, is thinking 'Don't mess up; I don't want to look a fool on the internet.'

"That's what it boils down to for some of these young kids coming through. That's where a lot of work need to be done to be able to deal with that kind of stuff, with older players too. You are not naturally built to deal with it."

Talks continue over the Premier League's return to action, but one idea that has gained traction is to broadcast all 92 remaining games, including making a sizeable percentage free-to-air. In turn, that would expose players to unprecedented levels of social media scrutiny.

There was a time when many leading managers sought to control access to social media. Upon his arrival at Manchester City in 2016, Pep Guardiola banned Wi-Fi in some areas of the club's training base, including the dressing rooms and physio rooms. He later relaxed that ban, reflecting a public softening of his stance; he later suggested that while social media had to be used with respect, it had become an inescapable part of modern life.

Jose Mourinho followed a similar trajectory during his time at Manchester United. His motivation was partly the unwelcome dissemination of internal information, but nevertheless, concerns about his players being distracted led to a rule of not allowing pictures from training or private areas (i.e., the team bus) to be posted in the 48 hours before games. Yet by March last year, Mourinho's position had changed.

"That is not anymore a fight, because you only fight when you have a chance to win," he explained.

"In the beginning [of social media], clubs were still trying to establish some rules and protect some situations, but I think it is a lost fight. It is something that you feel even at home with your children. It is even very difficult sometimes to keep the rule of 'when we are at the table, having the meal, no telephones.' For football players in the beginning, it was 'OK, you can have social media but not inside of the dressing room' or 'OK, you can have, but not when you are inside the club.' But then, step by step, it went into a direction because it is something that is part of their lives.

"Years ago, [after a game], the first thing the players do is get their phone, call the wife or their girlfriend, their father or mother. In this moment, the first thing they do is to post something in Instagram. It is also a big business at the highest dimension. There are things that you just have to adapt and learn how to live with it."

That adaptation is easier said than done for many, however.

"It's harder now to deal with criticism, without doubt," explained Foster, who at 37 can reflect on a 20-year career that's included spells at Stoke City, Manchester United, Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion. "I grew up in an era when social media wasn't so prevalent. That's not what it was about then but now it is, honestly.

"Players obsess about it. As a goalkeeper, I get good, bad or indifferent. If we beat Leicester for example, I'll have Leicester fans calling me a whatever. It's not right, but that's what will happen. If we draw and I make a mistake, I'll get something. If we win, I'll still get aggro.

"The abuse is intense whether you are in a relegation battle or battling for the Premier League title. It's still there. That opportunity to either look brilliant, or look like a fool, is still there. I don't know how we tackle it because it is so prevalent. Everybody's got Instagram or Twitter. It's the first thing they look at, and it's very difficult to get away from."

The "big business" Mourinho mentioned makes the hassle worth it for some stars. The monetisation of social media accounts -- an extension of the "influencer economy" -- has become an increasingly prominent point of negotiation during high-profile contract negotiations in recent years. There were other factors in play, but one key aspect of Arsenal's decision to hand Mesut Ozil a £350,000-a-week salary in January 2018 was his iconic individual status throughout the world. The Gunners shattered their wage structure in a calculated gamble they justified by identifying the revenue he could generate off the field, as well as his contribution on it.

Cristiano Ronaldo has harnessed this power perhaps better than anyone. In January, he became the first person in the world to amass 200 million Instagram followers, his enterprise off the field matching his endeavours on it. Yet below that stratosphere, the balance between adulation and abuse is creating mental health problems. Even top stars including Raheem Sterling, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford were subjected to sickening online hate, prompting players to organise a boycott of social media for 24 hours last April as part of the #Enough campaign.

It is a problem that transcends football, and in the absence of firmer restrictions on access and content by the various online platforms, Foster instead offers a simple message of self-discipline to compartmentalise and process these interactions.

"I'm very good at being able to decipher the fact that I'm never going to see any of these [abusers]," Foster said.

"I don't look at it too often. I'll scan it, as you do. I want to see what people are saying, like anybody does, even at my age. I don't care who you are, nobody is blind to what people are saying about you on the internet but you've got to understand the way they say it and where they are coming from.

"There's no way of getting away from it, but players have to understand you are never going to meet these people. If ever you are going to take somebody's opinion on something, it has to be someone you respect, someone you look up to: a coach, a manager, someone in a high position who has played the game. That's who you need to take opinion from.

"It takes a thick skin. I've dealt with it, been through ups and downs in my career, which stands you in good stead for this kind of thing."