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When Football Clubs' Social Media Banter Crosses the Line

Petr Cech Bayer Leverkusen
Petr Cech hit back at Bayer Leverkusen for their attempt at
banter
Rohith Nair
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Modified 15 Aug 2018
Feature

The opening weekend of the Premier League almost saw the most embarrassing own goal in the top flight's history when Arsenal took on Manchester City. With City's forward line pressing the Gunners defence, goalkeeper Petr Cech received a back pass that he attempted to pass to his centre-back.

The result? A near-calamity. The Czech goalkeeper mistimed the pass horribly and almost saw the ball roll into his own net, drifting just wide of the post to concede a corner.

The reaction and backlash were almost instantaneous. This is the 21st century and a moment like that in the biggest game of the weekend in the most popular football league in the world had the potential to spread like wildfire. And it did.

GIFs and memes became the order of the day. Cech was lambasted by the armchair critics, fans wanted him dropped, and pundits jumped on the bandwagon to question Unai Emery's methods of trying to get a 36-year-old goalkeeper to learn how to build the game from the back.

That was when Bayer Leverkusen's Twitter handle decided to enter the fray and try to become popular. Bundesliga clubs have taken Twitter banter to new levels with some witty and well-timed tweets in the past but, in hindsight, getting into this debate in such a manner was probably a bad idea.

Leverkusen were referring to Arsenal's new signing Bernd Leno - signed from the German club this summer for £19.2m. The club handle posted a video of how Leno started a move right from his own box that resulted in a goal for Leverkusen at the other end.

It was supposed to be a gentle yet tongue-in-cheek reminder to fans that Arsenal had a player capable of playing out from the back. Again, this tweet also became popular overnight and word obviously got to Cech himself who did not take it well. The tweet had hit a nerve, and rightly so.

Many would say that perhaps Cech should have let things lie and ignored the tweet. But Cech is old school. This is his 20th season as a senior professional and his 15th season in the Premier League.

He wasn't brought up like today's players who hit back with some banter of their own or use their mistakes to laugh at themselves, thereby garnering more love and followers by the minute (or tweet).

No, Cech is a consummate professional and a gentleman who has already established himself as an important figure in the sport and does not need to resort to cheap gimmicks to further his own reputation.

He is rarely on Twitter and has only tweeted about 2,100 times since he created his account - the majority of which are retweets. He is not a Benjamin Mendy or a Michy Batshuayi who love the platform to an extent where self-trolling is an acceptable strategy.

Above: Michy Batshuayi trolls himself after the celebration where he gets hit in the face after this attempt to celebrate a goal at the World Cup.

At 36, Cech cannot afford to be benched in favour of a younger goalkeeper. It was the reason why he left Chelsea in the first place and doing so at Arsenal will effectively end his career at the top level should Leno step up and seal his spot between the sticks.

That is why Cech responded in the way he did. He had no choice but to defend his honour for what was clearly a horrible mistake. In the wake of all the fans getting behind Loris Karius who had a disastrous Champions League final that cost Liverpool the title, shouldn't Cech receive the same support?

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final
Loris Karius was similarly abused and ridiculed on social media

And he is absolutely spot on when he talks about professionalism. Or the lack of it on Leverkusen's part. Those values are ingrained in such veteran footballers. The same cannot be said of the social media team that handles this particular account.

Also read: Champions League Final Lays Bare the Vicious Nature of Football Fans

The tweet put Leverkusen on the back foot and they hastily responded with a tweet of their own to defend the "joke" and even praise the veteran shot-stopper for saving Sergio Aguero's shot when he was one-on-one with the Arsenal goalkeeper.

Other clubs tried to get in on the act, too, in the thread but this is where the controversy died down - at least on Twitter.

Club accounts must draw the line between banter and rudeness

When you take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture, you see a club telling another club's fans that their manager got his selection wrong. Or to be a bit more specific, it was a club's social media team telling its followers that Arsenal were wrong to pick Cech.

The tweets raised an important question: where do these club accounts draw the line?

Bernd Leno Arsenal
Bayer Leverkusen tried to shine a light on former player Bernd Leno who joined Arsenal

Of course, nobody is stopping these accounts from engaging in banter. This is the 21st century and a cursory look at major football clubs' Twitter accounts show that this is how the smaller clubs get their fame and increase their follower count.

Clubs like, say, the Premier League's top six and the big three in La Liga already have an established fanbase and will get their followers no matter what. That is why the level of banter from these accounts is kept to a bare minimum and they do not "break the internet" in any way.

However, for many Bundesliga clubs like Bayer Leverkusen (and others such as AS Roma), they need to be entertaining and clever with (sometimes over-the-top) tweets in a bid to get new fans flocking to their club handles - even if the pre-planned banter can be cringe-worthy at times.

Above: How AS Roma announced Steven N'Zonzi's arrival.

Clubs regularly tweet content mocking their own players - say, a nutmeg in training. It is simply a way to build camaraderie in the side while giving fans a behind-the-scenes look at their squad.

But to pick on a player at another club is a strict no. Besides, it isn't like Leverkusen are top dogs in Germany. Since Cech started his senior career in 1999, he has won 18 trophies. In that same time period, Leverkusen have won a grand total of zero trophies.

The sole reason such clubs resort to so-called banter is to increase their follower count in a bid to monetise it when the time is right. Having this kind of a disruptive presence online only helps entrench the view that viral tweets will lead to an increased follower count.

If you ask Leverkusen whether their tweet on Cech was their official stance, they will clearly say it is not.

It is simply the work of a social media team (or person) that is probably a bit giddy by the number of followers the club handle has and plays with it like a toddler would with a toy - operating in a grey area bereft of any responsibility. Or it was simply a "marketing decision" that went horribly wrong.

This Twitter storm will be a lesson to many clubs who will instruct their social media teams to behave and clearly demarcate between what constitutes banter and what can be deemed an unintentionally rude insult on social media.

Published 15 Aug 2018
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