Only a month into being assigned as the captain of Arsenal by manager Unai Emery, it appears that Granit Xhaka’s time at Arsenal will soon come to an end and for non-footballing reasons. As he was substituted for Bukayo Saka in the 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace in the Premier League, he was being booed by his own fans for not leaving the pitch quickly. And the Swiss midfielder snapped. He was seen cupping his hand towards his ear, shout expletives at the camera, and as he crossed the touchline, he took off his jersey and went straight to the dressing room. Xhaka has since then apologised for his actions but he attributed his outburst to some real vitriol comments made about his daughter and wife on social media. As a matter of fact, he has changed his Instagram profile picture from one in an Arsenal jersey to one in a Swiss jersey – creating further anonymity with the club and its fans.
But it was clear that it was not the one-off incident of being booed for not leaving the pitch fast enough that led to Xhaka’s actions. Arsenal’s no. 34 has been abused on social media relentlessly over the past three years by Arsenal fans as he has been perceived as someone who could not justify his £35 million transfer fee. This had occasionally aggravated to death threats and abusive comments on Xhaka’s wife’s social media posts. With racial abuse against Tammy Abraham, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford for missing penalties earlier in the season, this is something that has now become a norm in the social media era, and with this, more such outbursts will be expected, and something has to be done to address this.
Unlike the pre-social media instances of fans abusing and threatening their own player, as the case of David Beckham after being sent off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, today’s social media abuse can happen any time of the day and the player has access to every abusive post or comment made against him. Beckham, in those days, could have gone home, spent time with close friends and family members, and insulate himself from all the hate outside. This can be seen by the fact that many ex-footballers cannot empathise with the current players when they say that back in their day, they could brush it off. Today, an underperforming footballer will get new notifications on his phone every second filled with vitriol, and that certainly has a negative impact on the player.
The major reason behind the abuse is the fan’s inability to relate to the footballer playing for his club. In a now-viral video by AFTV in the aftermath of the Crystal Palace draw, one of the fans mentions that the fans have the right to do what they did to Xhaka, because “we have paid our money” and “every man in the stadium would die to play for this club for one minute”, which are both ludicrous reasons in the real world. The same fan would find it absurd if someone else directed personal insults at or booed a taxi driver for accidentally taking a wrong turn, or if someone else demanded to run a café, something which he has no expertise in when the coffee is taking too long to arrive. There is a widely held belief that footballers have suddenly become impervious to all the criticism because they are multimillionaires, which is wrong.
Two groups now have a major role in ensuring that this is curtailed in the future – the clubs themselves, and the various fan channels, another new social media phenomenon. The clubs must offer counseling services to players in case they are affected by such abusive comments, as pent up anger can lead to an outburst which can potentially lead to irreparable damage in the player-club relationship as is now being seen in the case of Xhaka. The clubs must also request fans to not abuse their own players or their families as that can affect their morale, while eventually affecting their performance, and the team’s results.
While fan channels claim to just be a platform for fans to raise their voice, the ones who speak on or run these channels need to know that these voices are heard by a lot of people, including the players of their own team, thanks to the platform, and therefore, they should now shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that they don’t spoil their own players’ morale. A fan can always criticise constructively by saying that a player had a bad day and he has the ability to play much better, but straight up abusing just reduces his morale and reduces his motivation to perform, as players would run that extra yard to bring joy to people who back his ability rather than abuse him.
It is a fact that AFTV gets more views, and therefore more money, on videos where a fan goes on a rant after Arsenal performs poorly, and therefore, the channel (and every other fan channel) has to decide what should it prioritise – making money off the team doing poorly, or being true fans and backing the players to do well.
The Arsenal team management now has a herculean challenge at hand if it wants to see Xhaka remain a Gunner at the start of next season. Even if they let him go, a potential replacement with multiple suitors would think twice about joining a club where the fans are now known to insult their own players. Every other football club and its fans must learn a lesson from this incident and ensure that this situation does not happen with one of their own players.
Written by Abheek Dasgupta
El Arte Del Futbol is an official content creator for OneFootball. Find more Original Features, Player Profiles and Tactical Analysis’ on www.elartedf.com. If you are reading this on our website, we’d like to thank you for your continuous support! Follow us on twitter to stay updated with all the latest content.