Footballers may be at the tip of the steep iceberg when it comes to the adulation and adoration they receive from their legions of fans all around the world. Children and adults alike watch these stars strut their stuff week in and week out, making their support for their favourite football teams clear to all, whether it be Chelsea or Burnley. There are fans who travel to home and away games to holler out renditions of their best songs, there are fans who wake up in the dead of the night to quietly watch on lagging streaming sites, and there are fans who take it to Twitter to spew out their opinions on the latest talents under the cover of an anonymous username. You may even label a certain footballer a ‘snake’, cast them under the carpet for their perceived loyalty. But there is a lot that separates the footballer from the person, a screen that isn’t always permeable.
For example, take the case of Angel di Maria. United fans celebrated when he signed for my club, Manchester United, back in the back end of August 2014. A breakthrough signing, they said. A Galactico, signed for big money from the giants that were Real Madrid. A new star to adorn the hallowed number 7. He started off sumptuously: the memories of his finish in the infamous 3-5 loss to Leicester remain fresh in the head. But when winter and the infamous Manchester rains kicked in, he seemingly lost interest, and his family was disconcerted. He wasn’t helped by a burglary and coupled with an inane red card against Arsenal, he wanted out. PSG came calling as the suns came out in the summer, and off he was to Paris.
It prompted many United fans to call him a ‘snake’, even though he didn’t move to a rival like Carlos Tevez and a money-minded player. Unfair accusations perhaps, but fans never like it when a player pushes a move just after a year. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But in hindsight, the facts are clear: Di Maria wanted a PSG move from the start, he was shunted to United instead, and eventually got his move to PSG a year later via a failed year in Manchester. He’s been rumoured to move from PSG to China after a troubled year (for his lofty standards), adding more fire to the reasons behind his United departure.
As a player, did he move for money? Maybe. Should fans be disappointed by that? Definitely, but not surprised, given the decreasing presence of club loyalty in modern football. But should that lead to immediate criticisms of the player’s character? Limitless knowledge about the intricacies of football fail armchair critics when it comes to the psychology of players. In Di Maria’s case, it must be noted that he was one of three children born to a low-income Argentinian family working at a coal yard. Money did not grow on trees for them; far from it. His scenario is just one of many encountered by South American footballers, which explains why they move to China in search of lucrative money. It is easy for fans and even European footballers to criticism such money-influenced moves, but it is money that controls lives, not loyalty.
When di Maria’s Argentina national side stopped over at Singapore for a lucrative money-spinning friendly versus the local side, he was the only player to stop and sign autographs during a closed-doors training at a local ground, a decision that was rather unexpected. Dybala waved, Icardi walked past, but Di Maria, the second-most popular player in the squad, decided to sign a few jerseys and autographs before joining up with the squad. It was instinctive from the winger, turning to his right after getting out of the bus to sign, rather than walk straight. Some do as the security advise to do so, some might ignore, but he didn’t. After all, this was Angel di Maria, a scorer in a Champion League final, recognisable wherever he goes. He doesn’t need to sign signatures, but he did. It’s testament to his character, incongruous with fan opinion, and went a long way towards reshaping any Twitter-influenced views.
The footballer must be separated from the human. We often forget that football is just another job, a high-profile one, but nonetheless, a means towards earning money. Their lives are magnified on the world scene, and their mistakes and decisions are scrutinised by professional journalists and crude teenagers alike. Their career choices are similar to those made by ‘normal’ adults though. Some move to another company if they’re offered more money by them, in addition to other incentives. Football is the same- playing for a major club like Manchester United is all well and good, but if Paris Saint-Germain offer more money (and a better lifestyle), who would reject that?
Fans often try to get a response from footballers on social media through unjustified abuse, but what is that really inspired by? A desire for retweets and instant gratification? The want to be seen as a ‘lad’ for having shown these players of the virtues (or lack of) for leaving the best club in the world in their biased eyes)? It’s a question that doesn’t hold a straight answer. Not all footballers turn to sign autographs though; not all choose to react when faced by passionate and energetic teenagers. Not everyone is a Michy Batshuayi, engaging with fans with a myriad of witty tweets, or a Patrice Evra with his entertaining Instagram videos. Some footballers prefer to stay off the distractions that Twitter holds; some have a dormant account long forgotten, while some have embraced the technology. Tweets can get nasty at times, pushing footballers into a shell. The same players whose psyche is far more complex than we know, a spinning see-saw of confidence and demotivation, fear and doubt.
Gianluigi Donnarumma’s contract saga at Milan recently is evidence of the social media culture we live in, especially when it comes to football. All we knew were the facts presented to us, not enough for fans to cast their judgments on the player so soon. After all, Donnarumma was their darling a few months ago, an 18-year old living the dream, an 18-year old with a professed love for the club. We knew not of Donnarumma’s own thoughts or the actual sequence of events; neither did we know his agent Mino Raiola’s own agenda, obvious though it may seem. For all of Raiola’s faults, his point about Donnarumma being bullied is fully through; after all this is only sport, and not life. Cash bills thrown at an 18-year old and being given the moniker of “Dollarumma” is a sad state of affairs on many levels. Social media ensures controversies don’t die down easily, tarnishing reputations far too easily. Just remember Micah Richards’s car tweet. Outside of football, one feels for Donnarumma on a human level; if he miscalculated how viral the news could get, it is an error that can be attributed to his age. If he’s made a mistake, he needs to be afforded the chance to rectify. The chance for patience and time. Milan keyboard warriors tweeting abusive phrases on every official tweet does no one any favours, and in fact, could derail the confidence of an already fragile teenager.
With the saga behind them, and Donnarumma committed to the club with a new contract, it remains to be seen how the club’s fans will treat their star goalkeeper on social media. Will they forgive and forget, or will they continue to remind Donnarumma of his actions?
We consider footballers to be devoid of feelings, but this isn’t the case. In a world dominated by football games such as EA’s FIFA and Football Manager, players are seen as tradable objects. Transfers are blown over the top, sometimes more so than football games itself- just ask Paul Pogba. Castigating footballers based on them are the hottest of hot-takes, unfair on the player, unjustified by us, considering we know nothing about their characters and personalities. Social media reveals nothing about what they truly are.
This isn’t a case of over-analyzing a solitary moment though or a fluke. It made me reconsider what we label footballers. Calling them ‘snakes’ is too extreme: they aren’t traitors, that’s too harsh a label. They just make decisions that please some and alienate some. The off-pitch developments of football is a glorious representation of life itself. Rather than put the latest hot-takes on social media, we should take a moment to think more deeply. You may be annoyed, but life is far worse. Take a deep breath and move on.
United fans probably celebrated di Maria’s skilful goal here in Singapore like the rest of the crowd. He may have rubbed salt in Singapore’s wounds, and the wounds from his departure from United may still linger, but it may be time to move on. Meeting footballers in the flesh reveals so much more than their FIFA card; arbitrary stats without character traits. Footballers are so much more than they reveal; some are introverted, some are extroverted, shaped by their life’s experiences in the public eye. Judging their footballing qualities is fine; but no matter their career choices, we should be careful about what we call them. Terminology such as ‘snake’ stem from Twitter, but we should ensure it remains there. After all, football is a game- enjoy and appreciate, instead of hating.