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Football and Social Media: An Intriguing Relationship Reflective of Wider Societal Trends

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Social media offers an interesting form of postmodern communication between groups of people, yet—due to its banality (indeed, it has become the main form of communication for many people) the interesting aspects are often overlooked. Particularly, the Tweets of football fans are particularly fascinating since they tend to eschew the the rules of decorum and instead tend to say what they “really feel”.

Most recently’ the Italian side AS Roma’s English language Twitter account responded to Juventus’ announcement of a new store in Rome with a Tweet reading “Finally, something in Rome you really DON’T need to see”. While this may seem, on the surface, to be insignificant—just another off the cuff comment produced by the hyperreality that is the internet—a deeper look tells us that, in fact, the AS Roma fans might be getting at something deeper.

 

 

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Rome Has Many Famous Sites…the Juventus Store is Not One of Them. Image Courtesy of: @ASRomaEN Twitter Account.

 

AS Roma’s Tweet is first and foremost a rebuke at Juventus’ greed (itself born out of extreme capitalism). As the fiasco surrounding Juventus’ new badge showed, the team shows no shame in pursuing re-branding opportunities in a bid to increase their financial gains. Indeed, their eagerness to change their badge showed that the team has no respect for tradition or even their fan base (but, in typical fashion, the main (lame)stream media celebrated this abandonment of tradition). Opening a shop in Rome, a seven hour drive from Juventus’ home city of Turin, is just another manifestation of this greed. In this sense, AS Roma’s Tweet was also criticizing the rootlessness of postmodern society. This is an age when the football club—long a symbol of local pride—has become a globalized commodity. No longer content with the opportunities for financial gain in one city (or even one country), the team has become a global product to be consumed—making it indistinguishable from McDonald’s and Starbucks.

 

It is interesting to note that this is not the first time a football club’s humorous Tweet has become an internet sensation. Back in 2016 (I wrote about it here), the Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg hit back at the British newspaper Daily Mail for ridiculing their badge by naming it one of the “10 worst”. Like AS Roma’s Tweet, Zenit’s Tweet was also a form of social commentary. After all, what business of the Daily Mail’s was it to criticize the badges of football teams? It was a form of “journalism” (the quotes well deserved) that could only be produced in the postmodern hyperreality, where empty reporting is encouraged so as to generate more traffic (and, thus, more profit). It was also a news story which kept with the dominant technocratic trends of modern society with an obsession for rankings and categorizations. Most interestingly, the Twitter exchange between the Daily Mail and FC Zenit was also related to tradition. The Daily Mail—in a bid to save face—appealed to tradition by telling FC Zenit that they preferred the team’s old logo. FC Zenit responded in kind; indeed the Daily Mail’s old logo was much more “traditional” (adorned, as it was, with two British lions). Unfortunately for the Daily Mail, however, tradition does not sell in the modern world, and that may be one reason that the paper had to “modernize” their logo by making it a bland (and inoffensive) stylized letter “m”.

 

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Note the Number of Likes on Each Post, as Zenit Seem to have Outdone @Mailsport. Images Courtesy Of: @zenit_spb Twitter Account

 

By using the Sociological Imagination (to borrow C. Wright Mills’ term), we can see that these two humorous Twitter exchanges represent much more than mere online banter. They show us that online social interactions in the football world are also reflective of debates in wider society, and in this case it is specifically the debate between notions of “progress” and “tradition” which takes center stage.

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RB Leipzig and Zenit St. Petersburg Take Different Approaches to Industrial Football and Extreme Capitalism in the Post-Communist World

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Karlsruhe Fans “Voice” Their Disapproval”. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.goal.com/en/news/1717/editorial/2015/04/07/10495172/the-next-chelsea-or-anzhi-red-bull-gives-leipzig-wings-and-funds-

 

When RB Leipzig went top of the Bundesliga last week, becoming the first newly promoted side to remain undefeated after 11 weeks in the league’s history, one would have thought it would be a cause for celebration. After all, everyone likes an underdog, right? Just think of Leicester City’s fairy tale season last year in the Premier League. Despite love for the underdog, RB Leipzig’s rise to prominence has divided football fans with the Daily Mail calling them “the most hated club in Germany”. The cracks were there in September, when fans of Borussia Dortmund refused to travel to an away match in Leipzig. The leader of the protest, Jan-Henrik Gruszecki, said “Of course Dortmund makes money, but we do it in order to play football. But Leipzig plays football in order to sell a product and a lifestyle. That’s the difference.” This simple response shows why RB Leipzig’s rise is so repulsive to many fans; the team embodies the extreme capitalism that has characterized globalization in the last twenty-plus years, a poster child for the “Industrial Football” that has slowly taken the beautiful game away from fans and put it squarely in the pockets of big business.

RB Leipzig, on paper at least, should be celebrated as the first team from former communist East Germany in seven years to appear in German Football’s top flight. The reality is much different. As the Guardian explains:

Until 2009, RB Leipzig was a fifth-division club called SSV Markranstädt that few had heard of even in its native Saxony. Then the Austrian energy drink manufacturer Red Bull bought the club’s licence, changed its name, crest and kit, and promised a transfer budget of a rumoured €100m (£85m).

 Money was all that mattered, and the team had it. They also had the clout (or cunning) to skirt a rule that prohibits German teams from being named after sponsors so “the new club was christened Rasenballsport Leipzig, meaning lawn ball sports’”. Fans in the USA and Austria are, no doubt, familiar with similar “Red Bull teams” like Red Bull New York (who destroyed the legacy of the young—but proud—New York/New Jersey Metrostars and Red Bull Salzburg. It was not the naming of the club, however, that irked most people.

Rather, it was the fact that the club took control away from the fans in true corporate/extreme capitalist fashion. This was especially irksome in Germany, since the teams tend to value their fans: “The statutes of the German Football Association deter big investors from taking over its clubs. According to the so-called ‘50+1’ rule, clubs must hold a majority of their own voting rights. Only investors who have been involved with a club for more than 20 years can apply for an exception to the 50+1 rule.” It is a good rule that gives fans a say, but RB Leipzig has made being one of those “owners” prohibitively expensive: The Guardian reports that “while membership at Dortmund costs adults €62 per annum, being a ‘gold’ member at Leipzig will set you back €1,000 a year – and that still only makes you a ‘supporting’ or non-voting member,” and, therefore, RB have only 17 members—all of whom are either employees or associates of Red Bull.

There has—predictably—been a backlash to this from other fans. One fan of RB’s local rival Lokomotive Leipzig says “’My club was founded in order to play football, RB Leipzig was founded to make money. To sell an energy drink.” Indeed, in a cup match this season with Dynamo Berlin, opposing fans threw a severed Bull’s head onto the side of the pitch. While it is important to note that it is not all doom and gloom—RB have a great youth setup and tend not to invest in players over 24—there is still something unsettling about the corporate outlook that has overrun the East German side.

 

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Horse Head In Your Bed? Dynamo Dresden Fans Respond to RB Leipzig’s Policies. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/sep/08/why-rb-leipzig-has-become-the-most-hated-club-in-german-football

 

Fortunately, there have been pockets of resistence to this trend. Union Berlin, another of East Germany’s (formerly) famous sides, saved themselves by selling shares to fans—not corporate interests—in 2012. (They also wrote an article about bull farming in their program for the match against RB Leipzig in lieu of writing about their rivals).

 

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Union Berlin Chose Not To Give Their Rivals Any Press In Their Program. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3599158/Why-RB-Leipzig-hated-club-Germany-Owned-Red-Bull-crafty-sponsor-s-outpriced-fan-power-aiming-Bayern-Munich.html

 

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Russia’s famous Zenit St. Petersburg turned down a lucrative offer from American fast-food chain Burger King to rename the club “Zenit Burger King”. While this is not the “McDonaldsization” of the world but an attempt to “Burger King(ize?)” the world, the response by Zenit fans was amazing—Russia Today found it (predictably) “hilarious”. For my part, I was left wondering which genius at Burger King thought that this attempt at cultural/economic imperialism could have ever been successful but that is beside the point; after all I’m just a marginal sociologist making much less than a big-wig in Burger King’s corporate structure.

 

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The Letter in Question. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/european/zenit-st-petersburg-burger-king-offer-57m-offer-change-name-a7221766.html

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Zenit Embrace The Past. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.rt.com/sport/358140-zenit-st-petersburg-burger-king/

 

Zenit’s social media presence has been a welcome breath of fresh air, resisting the corporate imperialism of globalization. They shared a picture of the team that harkens back to the artistic history of their city—a solid rebuke of the homogenizing trends of globalism—and even engaged in a humorous polemic with the English newspaper The Daily Mail for insulting their logo that I found to be very funny. The attempts of global (extreme) capitalism to steamroll the world into submission are being resisted in pockets of the world such as Berlin and St. Petersburg but are being accepted as a matter of course in Leipzig. The fact that we see the conflict play itself out in football is indicative of the power of the world’s most popular sport to accept—or challenge—global trends that extend way beyond the football pitch.

 

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Zenit’s Social Media Team Working Hard–At Least It Made Me Laugh (Out Loud). Image Courtesy Of: https://tr.sputniknews.com/spor/201609051024704838-zenit-burger-king-cevap-kral/