Following Neymar and Liverpool: Fans in the digital age

Date published: Thursday 25th January 2018 8:27

Complaints about fans not supporting their local teams are nothing new, despite there being very obvious and valid reasons for why a Geordie may choose to support Chelsea, say; supporting a club is about emotional connection, and it doesn’t take a psychologist to see how watching a team steal a march on the league title or play in the Champions League final can make an impression on a young fan with no prior ties to a particular club.

But is the ‘Manchester United-supporting Cockney’ trope set to extend further afield? It certainly comes across that way: walk through any park with a football pitch, and there’s a decent chance you will see as many kids in Barcelona shirts as those showing their allegiance to Tottenham or Everton.

The social media landscape further colours this picture. Uefa’s annual club benchmarking report features a graph showing the number of Facebook and Twitter followers for clubs and players in the top six European leagues. Cristiano Ronaldo outstrips every single club on both platforms; Neymar does likewise on Twitter but not Facebook; and four players (Mesut Ozil, Andres Iniesta, Wayne Rooney and Gerard Pique) each have more Twitter followers than any European club except Real Madrid and Barcelona.

This creates a perception – among both fans and media – that we are moving towards a new era of football support, where young fans will increasingly support clubs from overseas, or even specific global superstar players. But is that really the case?

At 30, I am too old to answer the question first hand, so I spoke to 15 young fans aged between 17 and 23 about their love of football to get it straight from the foal’s mouth. People in that age bracket will be scarcely able to remember a time before YouTube and social media; to them, this is how the world has always been.

It’s worth noting that my correspondents were replying to a request over Twitter for interviewees, so to an extent there is a bit of a selection bias; the kind of people who are likely to see my tweets are perhaps not representative of young fans as a whole. Tempering that, however, is that those who did are likely to be those who are most prone to the influences of social media, often cited as the main driving force in the culture shift. I also offered no details on what the interviews would be about until after they contacted me.

The most immediately striking thing, both from the readiness of my interviewees to make this clear from the outset and in what is revealed, is that young fans still support their clubs first and foremost, and all those who were raised in England either inherited their team from older family or ‘chose’ a local side in childhood.

Not only did none of my European interviewees commit themselves to supporting only a foreign side, but none of them even expressed an affinity towards a foreign side as their declared second team. As 20-year-old Dutchman and Feyenoord fan David said: “Supporting a club overseas can feel a bit hollow and fake without the emotional attachment, and feels like it’s taking away for actual local fans.”

Instead, they expressed appreciation for foreign sides with a certain style or ethos. For example, here’s 18-year-old Spurs fan Jack: “When I had more time I used to watch La Liga quite often on Sky Sports and periodically had a soft spot for the teams that played nice football or were interesting, which has been Sevilla, Celta and Eibar at various points.”

…19-year-old Chelsea fan Amir: “I follow Bayern, Juventus and Real Madrid just because I enjoy watching those teams play football and they all have amazing world-class players. My relationship with them is not as strong as the club I support but I would say it’s decent.”

…18-yar-old Chelsea fan Richie: “I tend to watch a few La Liga games a week and can’t help but get enthralled by watching Barcelona play, watching Lionel Messi via a screen is something breath-taking.”

…and 20-year-old Liverpool fan Dominic: “I don’t really watch much football other than Liverpool but I take a sort of an interest in Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.”

The common thread that came up again and again was that while these young people certainly appreciate big foreign teams and enjoy watching them play, that doesn’t necessarily make them fans.

Michael, a 21-year-old West Ham fan, explained it best: “As fans, we like to watch this elite level of football and some fans, especially the younger ones, will grow an affinity towards it because they will idolise these players.

“Most of them in the ‘real world’ will be like me: they’ll have their local team or the team they follow every week, but when you enter the social space, they’ll perhaps divert their attentions back to these high-profile clubs and players. On occasions, these may overlap, but not often.

“When I’m watching or tracking Premier League football, my first thought is usually ‘how does this affect West Ham?'”

Far from being fickle and flighty with their allegiances – attracted to the bright lights and glamour of the biggest sides – these are thoughtful, passionate football fans who put their own clubs first but take an interest in the wider football world, and who enjoy sharing their knowledge with others.

Yet those lines get blurred by older commentators, perhaps because they overlook that access to those games is now so easy to come by that you don’t even have to go looking: it comes to you. I would consider myself reasonably tech savvy and I use Twitter almost exclusively for football, but I hadn’t even considered the extent to which young people are bombarded with posts about the world’s biggest players. If your friends are even tangentially interested in Neymar, social media algorithms will ensure you see it, too.

As Maryam, a 19-year-old Liverpool fan put it: “Any individual who is a football fan and follows players or websites will literally have their timeline full of it. There is no escaping from it, once you’re into that kind of social media there’s no way out.”

Michael agreed: “Younger fans … are so immersed in social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like – that they are often force-fed highlights or clips of those top clubs or players. You can’t go a day online without coming across perhaps a stats package on Cristiano Ronaldo or a clip of the latest brilliant Lionel Messi goal or a piece of skill by Neymar.”

There is an irony, too, that those who have been most vociferous about the inaccessibility and aloofness of players in the modern game (the old complaints of ‘you used to see them in the pub or getting the bus to the ground on matchdays’) are often the same people who instinctively dismiss Instagram culture as some terrible, distracting evil.

While those complaints are not without foundation, it is clear that for many younger fans, seeing their favourite players appear in their Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter feeds alongside their friends and peers can be helpful in restoring some of that lost sense of personal connection.

Sam, a 21-year-old Gunners fan, said: “I follow a lot of Arsenal players on social media. It can be fun if you try and forget you’re actually following a PR team. Snapchat and Instagram stories are a better way of connecting with a player as you can tell it’s actually them doing it.”

Which leads us onto exactly why players are beginning to gain more social media traction than official club feeds. Josh, a 23-year-old Liverpool fan, explained: “Someone may follow Jesse Lingard on Instagram because he posts funny videos behind the scenes at Manchester United. It allows us to get to know Lingard in a more unprofessional way, but that doesn’t mean we support United.”

There is clearly plenty of room for improvement if clubs want to continue to build that connection with their younger supporters, however. All of those I spoke to were all extremely adept at spotting the PR guff and intensively media-trained morsels of nothing that were often the only things you got to see of players when I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“Clubs don’t seem to understand how to connect to fans like me and my mates. I would say I was very close to hating the way Liverpool is run as everything feels very ‘PR’,” says Dominic, our 20-year-old Liverpool fan. That sentiment was shared by plenty of the other youngsters I spoke to.

17-year-old Manchester City fan Jack concurred: “I find that most players’ social media accounts are so dour and robotic that there isn’t much point following them anyway (with the exception of a few – Benjamin Mendy and Michy Batshuayi are the stand-outs).”

Sometimes, though, club channels can throw up odd things that wouldn’t necessarily come out of traditional media interviews.

Jack adds: “When Guardiola first joined City, I watched all of their content on that purely because I hadn’t really experienced the type of character that he was off of the pitch. I also watched an interview with Fabian Delph before where he claimed he had seen a ghost. At this point, traditional newspapers weren’t taking much notice of club YouTube interviews, so I swooped in and had it as a headline on my Man City fan site, which is affiliated with MSN. It’s fair to say that it drew quite a lot of traffic.

“My thoughts on this topic as a whole are this: social media is taking over and there’s no point trying to stop it. In fact, the more people that get on board and watch online content, the better it has to become. Characters like Mendy would be hidden away if it weren’t for social media.

“Players aren’t allowed to express their opinions in television/newspaper interviews but they can on social media, albeit still moderated. Regardless of who the youth of today support, the majority of them will have a much wider variety of football knowledge because of social media and [games like FIFA and] Football Manager etc. It allows them to be better informed and, in some way, connect with their heroes.”

Steven Chicken – with thanks to Jack (18, Spurs), Michael (21, West Ham), Maryam (19, Liverpool), Amir (19, Chelsea), Richie (18, Chelsea), Ryan (19, Barcelona), Dominic (20, Liverpool), David (20, Feyenoord), Jack (20, Newcastle), Josh (23, Liverpool), Sam (21, Arsenal), James (17, Chelsea), Rahul (18, Manchester United), Jack (17, Man City), and Ceylon (22, Liverpool)


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