England’s use of social media has created a togetherness and sense of fun within the squad that was crucial in their run to the World Cup semi-finals
The England national team footballer, long-vilified as the hapless under-performer, the choker, the millionaire idiot, has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last three weeks. Reaching the World Cup semi-finals undoubtedly helped, but something more profound has happened underneath the giddy, lager-lobbing hysteria of the 2018 World Cup: England’s footballers have, at long last, been allowed to become human beings again.
To understand the unfathomable transformation, skip back to May 29, 2018. Two weeks before the tournament kicked off in Moscow, The Sun’s front-page splashed on England forward Raheem Sterling’s “sick new tattoo”, claiming the “gun tat” had “triggered fury” from anti-gun campaigners who had called for Sterling to be dropped from the World Cup squad. To respond, Sterling turned to Instagram, explaining that the tattoo had a deeper meaning: his father, he wrote, was shot dead when Raheem was two. “I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my life time, I shoot with my right foot”. The baseless hysteria of The Sun’s story was widely derided, with Sterling’s calm response praised by former players.
Nevertheless, in the unrelenting hunt for the next click, the press attempted to create a story where there wasn’t one. Countless pixels were spilled as the hot takes competed to outdo one another. After all, who cares about the basis of the story when the currency of so much of the internet has become cheap, delicious outrage? Fast-forward two weeks, and the England squad were sharing pictures of themselves riding inflatable unicorns, faces contorted with childlike joy.
For decades, unrelenting and often shrill scrutiny from the English press has been an integral part of playing for or managing the country’s national football team. At its best, it (belatedly) shows up Sam Allardyce for not being the best candidate for the job. At its worst, it unduly vilifies a young professional sportsman trying to go about the fraught business of not totally screwing up another England World Cup campaign.
In response, the flawed instinct of past squads was to become insular and defensive. Recent World Cup and European Championship campaigns are testament to this: the England team has hidden itself away in an attempt to avoid the headlines. Social media was used sparingly and players followed a tedious script when speaking to the media. Say next to nothing, it was hoped, and nothing bad could be said about you. But then you go and lose to Iceland.
For the 2018 World Cup, that approach has been flipped. Before a ball was kicked (most likely from a set-piece), the England squad has been unnervingly peppy and open. On Twitter and Instagram, England’s footballers have been given the freedom to express themselves. Kyle Walker, Jesse Lingard and Harry Maguire, in particular, have used social media to connect with fans and show how much fun the whole team has been having during its time in Russia. In the marginal gains of competing at a World Cup, Sterling and his teammates have been trusted to tell their own story of their joyous Russian jaunt through jokes, memes and video clips. Gone are the dreary, boring days of Baden-Baden and Rustenberg – aside from the football, England’s 2018 World Cup will be remembered for how much fun the team had.
Working with consultant Sue Llewelyn, a former BBC journalist, the FA has quietly trained-up the current generation of England stars with some simple but priceless best-practice tips. Llewelyn has worked with England’s U17, U19 and U21 set-ups, through which most of England’s squad have graduated. Social media training has focussed on how the squad can use social media as a team, praising one another publicly and focussing on the positive sides of playing in a World Cup. It’s a way of thinking that you can glimpse behind each and every social media post shared from the England squad during the tournament: be positive, be together and have some fun.
A smidge corny? Sure. But it works. Speaking to The Guardian, Llewelyn explained that she had worked with the squad on understanding the line between “stupid banter” and something that should be shared on social media. Part of this involved going back through players’ timelines to spot missteps. “Who doesn’t like a hero?” Llewelyn retorted. “So don’t abuse that power.”
It might sound trivial, but it isn’t. In interview after interview, members of the England squad have come across as relaxed and at ease with their fame and responsibility. By encouraging the squad to use social media in their own way, Gareth Southgate and his management team have helped ease the pressure and, for the first time in decades, make playing for England at a major tournament fun. And so, rather than hide away, the England squad have embraced the memes and become as well-loved for their banter as their ball skills. And there has been a lot of banter.
Make no mistake, there’s an element of stage management at play here. But England’s social media success story doesn’t have the hallmarks of an odiously PR-led operation. So when Kyle Walker asks how he can send England shirts to the rescued Thai children’s football team it’s both a natural, human thing to want to do but also predicated on an understanding of how best to use social media to express yourself. This is a group of young men being given the opportunity to communicate directly with fans in their own voice. Social media, so long seen by football clubs as a PR nightmare waiting to happen, has become anything but.
It’s also an approach that helps us get away from the idiotic platitudes of professional sport: rather than talking about giving 110 per cent and remaining focussed on the next game, the England squad have been given the freedom to have a personality. Even Harry Kane, a gloriously gifted automaton whose every waking thought is how to score another goal, has located his personality and proudly paraded it for the world to see.
With an average age of 26 and only three players over the age of 30, England’s 2018 squad is the youngest the nation has ever taken to a World Cup. These are players who have grown up on social media and had time to understand its perks and pitfalls. In Southgate, a sprightly, waistcoat-sheathed, 47-year-old with a calm, teflon-esque demeanour, they also have a manager who, to the surprise of basically everyone, has seemingly been persuaded about the importance of social media.
In response, the squad have used a mix of memes, video clips and jokes to share their journey through the tournament. Kyle Walker has offered to pay for a fan to have a John Stones tattoo and, following his prone celebration of England’s penalty shootout victory over Colombia, created the flash-in-the-pan trend for #kyling (lie on your back, legs in the air like a toppled beetle). Harry Maguire’s video clip of friends and family celebrating that same victory has been viewed more than one million times. A gag photo of Jesse Lingard on the phone to his mum has been retweeted almost 90,000 times and liked by 308,000 people. A subsequent video of him hugging his mum in the stadium following England’s semi-final win, a heartwarming punchline to his earlier joke, has been viewed nearly two million times.
This all adds up to something tangible: every like, every retweet, every message of encouragement from England fans creates a feeling of momentum and positivity within the squad. Winning a major international tournament has always been about more than performance on the pitch, the sweat and toil of lung-busting sprints and desperate tackles. As England have shown, fostering a spirit of togetherness and respect both within the squad and amongst the public and press creates a feedback loop of positivity. And if winning the World Cup is all about momentum, then England have found a way to generate it by the shedload.
The momentum that generated helped England to within one win of their first World Cup final since 1966. Defeat against Croatia was agonising, but there is so much encouragement to be taken from an England team that was able to find the joy in football again.