The experience of being a modern football fan has changed drastically – from positivity to negativity – over the years, since I started following the sport in 2003. All footballing conversations I had as a kid were sitting on the grass after games, arguing over whether Lampard was better than Gerrard. There was always a humorous undertone to the conversations, and disagreements never descended into name calling or personal animosity. All our footballing gossip came from Sportscenter and Nokia Football Extra on ESPN, and every footballing debate I had growing up was with people who loved the sport with the same intensity and supported their clubs to the death like I did.
Fast forward to 2021 and the entire experience of being a football fan has undergone a complete change. I attribute a lot of that change to how popular Twitter is among the football community. My WhatsApp groups are now full of “banter” posts and player comparisons, most of which lack context or any factual basis. Evaluations of a player’s quality change on a regular basis, with fans often choosing players within their own squads and forming cults of sorts. If I was to believe my Twitter Timeline (TL), Jorginho is everything from the next Pirlo to the worst player to ever play in the Premier League. I log onto Twitter after a bad Jorginho or Kante performance and I see our own fans celebrating their downfalls, and it leaves me speechless. A bad Chilwell performance and our own fans abuse him. Kepa had a horror season last year and had to disable replies because of the number of Chelsea fans abusing him and sending him death threats.
The amount of negativity I see daily is shocking, and it is no surprise that several level-headed fans have quit Twitter or limited their use to safeguard their own mental health. A platform that was meant to bring people with a common love for football and clubs together is now all about player slander and borderline abusive Tweets from people who value likes and Re-Tweets (RTs) on their posts over actual footballing discussions. The vile racist abuse so many of our own players have received from people online is sickening; a situation like this combined with a global lockdown and people having time on their screens all day has seen the amount of vitriol and abuse skyrocket.
Dare to Compare: Relentless Comparisons Need to Go
Player comparisons without context are the worst part of Twitter, and yet drive the most engagement. A random fan account with a large following will pick two or three players from different eras who have different attributes and paste a > or < sign between their pictures. And people will debate for hours beneath these posts with the most ill-thought-out arguments humanly possible. A player’s quality is not a metric. Different players have different career trajectories often resulting in a flurry of trophies, or very few. An objective comparison of Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard is not possible because the circumstances around their careers and the systems in which they played were so different. All were world class players who were monumental for their clubs. But if you go by fan threads on twitter, it appears impossible to compliment one without slandering the other. This is often a feature with any debate on Twitter. Context and actual content are secondary. Likes and “ratios” (where one Twitter user comments on a Tweet or other comment to gain more likes and in particular shame another user) take precedence.
A large section of Twitter also thrives off negativity and calling a player incompetent. Such a broad and sweeping statement on a player’s quality always touches a raw nerve. One bad Tammy Abraham or Mason Mount performance causes people to start shouting, “We always knew they (Mount and Abraham) weren’t Chelsea standard.” One bad N’Golo Kante performance and people start tweeting that he is ‘a finished player.’ Kovacic or Jorginho make one bad pass or lose the ball once and the TL is filled with abuse. A lot of Twitter accounts have grown their followings purely by stoking negativity, and it is seemingly impossible to find a nuanced and balanced take. It is obvious players are on Twitter and check replies to their tweets. They also search their names and read what people write about them, no matter how much they deny it. A number of Chelsea players including Reece James and Kepa Arrizabalaga have, at one time or another, disabled the comments section or deleted their social media account entirely due to the abuse they have received online.
How would the abusers feel, if they were doing something they loved, and had to go online and read people saying how bad they were? The human psyche is sensitive, and when someone concentrates on your insecurities and attacks you repeatedly, it’s bound to crush your confidence. Footballing criticism when presented in a constructive manner sparks good debate and is always welcome. Calling a player ‘rubbish’ and ‘mid’ is not, and reeks of insecurity and bitterness.
The Solution: Out with the Negativity and In with the Positivity
One thing that is clear from Twitter debates is that people watch matches with their biases very much intact. I have come online at halftime to see the same player being called both world class and a liability. Opinions that stray towards negativity always get the most mileage. If people watch a match and only see the negatives in each player, I can imagine the experience being too much fun for them. The next time you watch Chelsea play try and do it without your bias in mind. Instead of engaging in negativity, try to list down the positives only.
You will notice how the much-maligned Mason Mount’s harrying of the opponent turns the ball over in advanced areas and allows Chelsea to attack. Also, you might see how Jorginho plays each pass a few metres ahead of his runner so that the man can collect it mid stride. You may ascertain that Kante is everywhere, and also how neat and purposeful his passing is despite a lack of aesthetics. You could pick up how Tammy stretches the defence and drags the centre-backs out of position with his movement. Also, you’ll decipher how Kovacic’s dribbling and ball carrying skills often ease the pressure on our defence and help us beat the press, how Christensen’s poise and composure on the ball in instrumental to us playing out from the back with confidence and, last but not least, how neat Azpilicueta is on the ball even under pressure and how good he still at defending one-on-one.
The intention was never to sound preachy or sanctimonious. But in a world that is grappling with negativity and is as divided and hurt as ours, especially with the pandemic, football is a lot of people’s escape from reality, their happy place. There are other places overflowing with negativity. Let us Chelsea fans keep positive, actual footballing discussions flowing and try our best to avoid negativity, and hopefully soon the entire world will be back on footballing pitches and in pubs, enjoying the game as they always did before this virus turned our lives upside down.
Thank you for this sport and this beautiful club that has given me so much over the years. Onwards and upwards till the end of the season.
Written by Akash Hebbar (@akashhebbarcfc8)
Edited by Dan Hill (@idanknow05)