A week ago, we called the upcoming extravaganza in South Africa the first Twitter World Cup, perhaps the most moronically obvious statement we’ve ever written, given the service barely existed in mid-2006.
Still, though, the existence of the service and other social media will present a fascinating angle to the tournament, with information control a far harder challenge for the organisers and team managements than ever before. Imagine if Twitter had existed during the 1998 World Cup, and the explosions and leaks that would have surrounded the Ronaldo imbroglio before the final.
Even before the tournament has started, we have a Twitter controversy:
England coach Fabio Capello has banned his players from commenting on Twitter, but that didn’t prevent others from tweeting about who was going or not going to the World Cup — before Capello even announced the England 23-player roster on Tuesday. That Theo Walcott was among the topics “trending” on Twitter was indeed not good news as he was the most notable of the seven players Capello cut.
Almost two hours before Capello’s scheduled announcement of the England 23, news of the seven players who had been dropped had spread across the web, and celebrity tweeters — at least celebrities in Britain — were adding their opinions on who was in or out.
“It’s frankly a shambolic and unacceptable way for England’s World Cup campaign to begin,” noted the BBC’s Jonathan Stevenson.
England players will not be allowed to comment on any social media site or write articles for newspapers during the tournament.
By contrast, the surprise of the United States’ squad announcement — that Robbie Findley was in and Brian Ching was out — largely was a surprise when the announcement was made, though some Twitter buzz had noted Ching had been seen earlier at an airport heading off. Without the suffocating interest and media coverage in England, social media is less of a danger to official Communications channels in the U.S. — though that’s not to say it’s not a concern or opportunity at all.
Different squads face different challenges and team managements are handling the situations in markedly divergent ways. England’s Football Association, as it mentions above, have put a blanket ban on players using social media: ensuring their superstars remain as remote as ever from us, though frankly, I would not have too much interest in what Frank Lampard had to tweet in any case.
For a team still striving for media attention domestically, like the United States, it makes sense to allow players to tweet, even if it still presents a challenge for the communications department of U.S. Soccer, who told me they simply offer “guidelines” for players to follow when using Twitter. They did not expand on what these guidelines encompass, but you can bet they will have some nervous moments when you think of an exhausted player with direct access to thousands of followers after a defeat with 140 characters to fill.
Imagine, for example, the media storm if Ledley King had typed the words U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu did after his selection for the U.S. team was announced, overcoming injury and doubters who he ill-advisedly termed “haters”:
Athletes are young, cocooned, and often unaware how their words ping around and are perceived by fans. It’s good that U.S. Soccer are treating their players like grown-ups, unlike the Football Association. There’s a serious upside to this too for soccer in the United States, with the connections players build with fans through Twitter. But one suspects there will be a hairy moment or two for U.S. Soccer officials to deal with come gametime.