YEKATERINBURG – England's Raheem Sterling branded himself "The Hated One" after becoming the target of online abuse at Euro 2016 – exposing the dilemma faced by players who try to connect with fans through social media.
Twitter, Instagram and other platforms are a godsend for players cooped up in their hotel rooms at the World Cup but their use represents a modern-day juggling act that can quickly overshadow almost anything that happens on the pitch.
In the eyes of many coaches, the use of social media while in Russia is at best a waste of time and at worst can trigger unnecessary controversy. Players who use social media counter that it is a way to communicate more intimately with fans and boost their profiles.
England manager Gareth Southgate knows that he cannot ban his squad from using social media – after all, with hours spent at their training bases or travelling, players will inevitably reach for their phones. But the 47-year-old, an England international before social media was a thing, has made his views clear and would prefer they stay off it.
"It comes back to what creates pressure or what creates misery in your life," Southgate said in the build-up to the tournament. Generally, I think there's a lot of social media that can be negative, so why would you invite that into your life?"
His stance is likely to have been shaped by what happened with attacker Sterling when the Manchester City star was picked out for particular invective from disgruntled fans during England's disastrous Euro 2016 campaign in France.
Writing on Instagram, where the 23-year-old has now racked up 3.7 million followers, Sterling branded himself "The Hated One". Those three words triggered more headlines and increased scrutiny of Sterling, who has failed to win over some England fans despite a spectacular season under Pep Guardiola at City.
England and Manchester United winger Jesse Lingard – who has been criticised for his regular use of Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat – says being prominent online is a crucial part of being a footballer in 2018 and helps humanise them to the outside world.
"People from outside don't know what we're like as people," he said before jetting out to Russia.
"A lot of players use social media to get their profile out there and people can see what they're up to," he added.
The 25-year-old has though found himself in trouble for his social media posts. In February, he apologised and blamed a member of his media staff for a sending out a tweet on his behalf while he was at a memorial service for the United players killed in the Munich air disaster of 1958.
United's legendary former manager Alex Ferguson memorably once called Twitter "a waste of time". But hundreds of millions of people disagree and the World Cup dominates Twitter like no other event can.
Russia 🇷🇺 🏆 pic.twitter.com/fSHUpoXY3k— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7) June 12, 2018
During the 2014 Brazil World Cup there were 672 million tweets related to the #WorldCup, Twitter said, calling it at the time the "highest number we've announced related to an event".
Like Southgate, most team bosses expect their players to exercise restraint and judge for themselves what goes too far, rather than imposing blanket bans. Denmark say they expect their players to use "common sense" and Sweden are taking a similarly relaxed approach.
"We have just asked the players to think twice before posting something," said Staffan Stjernholm, a spokesman for Sweden.
"To think about any possible negative impact on themselves or their team-mates."AFP