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It’s Time to Fight Back Against Abuse in Football


Black and white image of a footballer’s feet about to touch the ball and an outstretched hand of a keeper waiting. The title ‘Abuse in Football’ and sub-title ‘A Brief Look into the Bitter Truth of the Game’ in white fonts.

For an hour in the evening, the football grounds of Malappuram are breeding grounds for drama.


You can see best friends of decades transform into bitter rivals. You can see mild-mannered kids turn into aggressive players. You can see ordinary humans emulate footballing skills on par with professional athletes.


In addition to the wonders, the playground is also a place of negativity.


Because in every playground, there would be a few assholes. This lot has nothing better to do but criticize you if you make the slightest mistake. 


And if the stakes are high, abuses are hurled. You get sharp reprimands for even minor perceived mistakes. Thus, in fear of making mistakes you avoid taking the calculated risks so vital for playing good football.


Abuse in football is an unfortunate reality. The heightened competitive atmosphere often leads to victories being prioritized at the expense of just having fun. 


I used to think it was just something specific to local football. But it turns out it’s present in professional football as well. 


And it’s fucking worse.


 

The 24/7 Cycle of Abuse

Social media has now given us access to the lives of professional footballers. It is now easier than ever for our carelessly written words to grab their attention and ruin their days.


In 2022, Ofcom with the help of The Alan Turing Institute, analyzed the abuse of footballers from the English Premier League received on Twitter. The team tracked the data of players for 5 months. 


The results were eye-opening. The report found that 7 in 10 Premier League players receive abusive comments on Twitter. Meanwhile, 1 in 14 players received abuse daily.


Some of these players received thousands of negative tweets every day. The number of these tweets saw spikes after bad team performances, individual mistakes, etc.


This report proves that abuse towards professional footballers from fans is extremely prevalent. And it hasn’t received enough attention.


It also illuminates the sheer challenge of tackling such a scale of negativity. Because as humans we have a bias towards the negative. If you get a thousand positive comments and just a single negative comment, your mind is bound to focus on the latter.


The obvious moral conundrums of this aside, the thing is, the insane scale of abuse doesn’t do shit in the first place. People who believe in the ‘being tough on the players’ mentality fail to understand the repercussions of their actions.


I’ll show three fallacies that those who follow this line of thinking are making. I’ll also use three examples from the world of football to illustrate how the abuse of footballers is more serious than we think.


Fallacy #1: Abuse Makes Players Perform Better

Harry Maguire had a stellar start to his Premier League career. 


His performances in the center of defense for first Hull City and later Leicester City received immense praise from fans and critics. It earned him a transfer to the English giants Manchester United for a record 80 million pounds, in 2019. 


He had an excellent first couple of seasons at United and was a pivotal part of their defense. In his second season, he was appointed the captain and United came 2nd in the league - their highest position since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.


But the third and fourth seasons were different; Maguire had a continuous streak of bad performances. He made 16 errors that led to goals for the opposition teams. And during a 9-game spell, he received a total of  7 yellow cards. 


The instability within the club as a result of changing managers and tactics didn’t help his case either. Eventually, he was stripped of the captaincy by United manager Erik Ten Hag.


By then, Maguire was the target of the trolls. He received abuse both online and in real life. The abuse became so bad that even Maguire’s mom made an Instagram post making a statement that what her son was receiving had gone beyond football.


He even reported receiving a fucking bomb threat.


However, numerous people came to his aid during this period. Including both his coaches, Erik Ten Hag (Manchester United) and Gareth Southgate (England.) Both denounced the unfair criticism Harry was subjected to.


Then, in the beginning of the 2023-24, he received an offer to move to West Ham. But Harry decided to stay in the club and fight for his place. 


This decision did not go well with a lot of Man United fans.


So, consider their surprise when Maguire returned to form. In a crucial game against Brentford, he even assisted a goal for Scott McTominay to clinch the victory. He also scored the sole goal in United’s UCL (UEFA Champions League) win against Copenhagen. Maguire also put solid shifts in defense in multiple games.


For his performances, he was awarded The Premier League Player of the Month for November.


Now, Harry Maguire is a player known for his resilience and grit. 


But his heroic return is no justification for the amount of abuse targeted towards this innocent man.


There might be a section of fans (a minority, I hope) who believe that the criticism is what made Maguire better. I would argue that he made a return despite the criticism rather than because of it.


Because it is hard to let abuse at such a scale not affect you negatively. It leads to self-doubt and to worse mistakes. One bad performance leads to a second bad performance, a third, and on and on. Eventually, the player becomes a mere shadow of what he once was.


Maguire has spoken against the criticism himself saying, “I think people see footballers as robots who don’t have emotions, but of course we have emotions. We’re disappointed and we’re hurt when we don’t play well.”


Like he said, you and I have no idea about how deep our words cut into the hearts of these players. 


We also have no idea what some of them are going through.


Fallacy #2: They Have Money, So It’s Fine

Dele Alli had an enviable rise towards the top of world football.


In January of 2015, Alli transferred to Tottenham Hotspur from Milton Keynes Dons. Soon after arrival, he became a key player for the Premier League side. Around the same time, he also made his debut for England, even scoring in his first match.


In his first two years at Spurs, Dele Alli received multiple awards. This included the PFA Young Player of the Year Award (twice - in 2015/16 and 2016/17) and the Premier League Goal of the Year Award in 2015/16. He was also included in the best eleven for the seasons 2015/16 and 2016/17. 


His stunning performance on the pitch led to him receiving the appraisal as the most valuable midfielder in the world. 


But in a short time, things fell apart. 


His form dipped in his third season. He was no longer performing at the level of the previous seasons. The bad performances led to the media and fans hounding him. His performances were blamed on him being a party freak.


Then, the once most valuable midfielder in the world moved to Everton on a free transfer. From there, he even went on loan to Turkish club Besiktas. But in both clubs, Alli failed to regain his past form.


Meanwhile, the criticism and abuse continued online.


Then on July 2023, Dele Alli appeared as a guest on Gary Neville’s show The Overlap. In the segment, he broke his silence and shed light on the issues that had been affecting him for the past few years.



He opened up about his traumatic past which included sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, an alcoholic mom, and the sale of drugs. He detailed his tumultuous relationship with his biological parents and later adoption by his current family.


Besides his past, Alli also explained his addiction to sleeping pills and reliance on alcohol. Furthermore, he spoke about shunning help from those closest to him, being afraid of the repercussions.


It is unfortunate that Dele Alli had to go through such a traumatic past. He didn’t deserve it. 


Nor did he deserve the amount of criticism and unfair speculation made during his darkest period.


“I think people’s perception of me was a lot different to the reality of what I was living,” said Alli in the interview.


I have seen a lot of fans online justify the criticism and abuse that players receive citing they should just ‘deal with it,’ because they are rich. Such fans see the abuse as an ‘unavoidable’ fabric of football as if fans are mindless drones that hurl the worst abuses for the tiniest mistakes.


The truth is, no amount of money you make is a substitute for a happy childhood. It won’t take away the bad experiences you have had or are having at the moment. It won’t take away the pain of losing a child, addiction, or illness.


“Yes, you have money, and you can do a lot of things that you wouldn’t be able to do without it, but mentally, I don’t think people will ever understand until you’re in it, what it can do to you,” said Dele Ali in the same interview.


Football also has a history of fans doing worse.


Fallacy #3: It’s Just A Few Harmless Words

The Columbian team for the 1994 World Cup had players like Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincon, and Faustino Asprilla. Naturally, the team was expected to go far in the competition. In fact, Pele himself predicted the team to at least reach the semis.


Alongside the stars, the golden generation also had a 27-year-old center-back named Andres Escobar. 


Andres was the pillar of Columbia’s defense. Before the tournament, he had captained his club Atlético Nacional to both the Copa Libertadores and the Columbian League. 


And after the World Cup, Andres had other things waiting for him. He was all set to move to Italian giants AC Milan. He was also set to marry his fiance. 


But fate had other unfortunate plans.


The terrible turn of events commenced with Columbia’s first match in the World Cup. Because to everyone’s surprise, Columbia lost to Romania 3-1. 


Their second match was against the hosts USA. In the 34th minute, a US player crossed the ball across the Columbian defense hoping to find a teammate. However, the cross was intercepted by Andres Escobar. 


But a miscalculation from him led the ball towards his post. It bypassed the goalkeeper and became an own goal.


Columbia ended up losing the match 2-1.


Despite a 2-0 victory in the last match, the Columbians came last in their group and were hence knocked out. 


All the players including Andres returned to Columbia, amidst death threats and an overall hostile atmosphere.


Andres’s own goal was blamed as one of the main reasons for the early exit. Fans were quite mad and the team was advised to lay low for a few days.


But just 5 days after his return, Andres went out to a nightclub with a couple of his friends. 


Late at night, as he was sitting inside his car parked outside the club, a group of men approached. After an altercation, the men shot him six times, yelling ‘Gol!’ after each of them. 


Escobar was taken to the hospital immediately but died of injuries within an hour.


The real cause of Andres Escobar’s death remains unknown to this day. Multiple speculations exist, from retaliation for his own goal to the involvement of cartels. It remains a dark stain in the history of the beautiful game.


The story is the ultimate example of what can happen if things in football are taken beyond the pitch; if the mistakes players make on the pitch are used as a judgment of their character let alone their right to life.


 

Fuck Abuse in Football, Let’s Be Kind

On the same grounds of Malappuram, I have seen the flip side.


I have seen people getting worked up over unfair criticism of others, lashing out at the critics. I have seen old-timers with excellent footballing skills encouraging youngsters and helping them become better players through kind words and well-timed passes.


I have seen players in a position to score goals slide the ball to their best friend so he can score instead. I have even seen goals being celebrated by both teams at the same time.


On rainy days, after a match of football, we all gather and go to the pond nearby. As we swim around, we reminisce about the game and talk about the missed chances, the fouls made, and the funny incidents. We wash off the grime accumulated on us and with it the rivalry of the day.


The next day is a new day with no hooks to the mistakes of the past.


I hope the same happens to real-world football. Stories such as those of Maguire, Ali, and Escobar are reminders of the dangers of abuse of footballers. 


I do believe criticism is a vital part of the sport. You need to demand better performances from players of the team you support. You have to ask them to give it their all. 


But let’s not get carried away. Let’s not make harsh judgments on the character of players for a string of bad performances. Let’s not undermine their potential over a slight dip in form. 


Instead, let us all be reminded that both us and them pretty much want the same thing: for them to play sexy ass football.


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