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To tweet or not to tweet

September 10, 2011

In an age where you can find out what anyone thinks about pretty much anything just by clicking a mouse, it appears that Bundesliga stars are more restrained than most when it comes to talking trash or spreading gossip.

Twitter logo with football
Twitter controversies have yet to envelope the BundesligaImage: Fotolia/DW-Montage

There used to be a time when you'd only ever hear a soccer player's voice when he was quoted in tightly-edited clips from post-match interviews. While his mouth would be moving, the words coming out of it would probably not be his own. Players appearing before the cameras were carefully chosen, vetted and coached - which is probably why so many of them used the same phrases about the game being one of two halves and the lads giving 110 percent.

Things have changed in recent years, however. While players are still required to spew the usual inane clichés to the camera in some sponsor-splattered corridor after the match, the age of instant information and mobile communication has now given us all unlimited access to the unrestrained ramblings of the modern footballer. For that, Twitter, we are all eternally grateful.

While this Twitter phenomenon is by no means unique to the English Premiership, it seems that this particular social networking application has had the most effect on those players plying their trade on the island. Suddenly unleashed, players feel compelled to transmit their every thought; do you want to find out what Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand thinks about thongs? It's all there on his feed in all its Tweeting glory.

"Clubs in England have almost total control over the media and the only way the newspapers can get the information is through club-sanctioned press conferences or via the club's official website," Mihir Bose, author and former BBC sports editor, told Deutsche Welle. "Players have embraced social media like Twitter because it by-passes these channels and allows them to reach out directly to the fans and provides scope for instant access."

Twitter has also opened a window into the machinations of the soccer world previously unseen due to the iron grip clubs used to have on what could be said publicly.

Hoffenheim's Ryan Babel
Babel has curbed his wayward tweeting since joining the HoffImage: picture alliance/dpa

Now we know that Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton not only has a surprising penchant for Nietzsche but that he also considered his former paymasters at Newcastle to be vindictive liars - a revelation that ultimately led to his transfer. We also know what winger Ryan Babel thought about the impartiality of referee Howard Webb when he tweeted a photo of the official in a Manchester United shirt after his Liverpool side went down to defeat two years ago to the English champions.

Germany curbs Babel's Twitter rants

Dutchman Babel has been a lot more restrained in his tweeting since being sold to Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. After a couple of Hoffenheim-related tweets after he arrived, Babel now prefers to use his feed to promote his struggling rap career rather than comment on his day job. It may be that fewer things in Germany infuriate Babel as much as they did in England but it's more likely to have more to do with the differences in behavior and culture between the Bundesliga and the Premiership when it comes to social networking.

"It was were surprising when Babel came to Hoffenheim and everybody could read all day long, what he does, when he eats and when he goes to bed because it's unusual in the Bundesliga," Jonas Kleinert, who writes on Hoffenheim for 1899aktuell.de, told Deutsche Welle . "Shortly before his first game against Hannover 96, Babel tweeted that Hannover sounds like hangover. The quote made the papers, probably because Hoffenheim lost, and he hasn’t said much about the Bundesliga since that."

"To be honest, I don't know many German fans who are interested or get any kind of reward from knowing that Ryan Babel is currently at lunch."

It seems that when German players want to generate controversy, they tend to stick to more traditional forms of communication.

When it came to sticking the knife into the various coaches who have come and gone - and apparently failed, in his eyes - during his time at Bayern Munich, Germany international defender Philipp Lahm chose to do so via the tabloid press. The excerpts from his new autobiography “The Subtle Difference” which ran in the mass-market Bild newspaper sent the book to the top of Germany’s bestseller list in pre-sale.

Facebook the social medium of choice

Lahm, along with many Bundesliga stars, has his own Facebook page. While in recent weeks he has used it to thank his 641, 288 'friends' for their comments on his book and messages of support, he has yet to repeat any of the more spicy elements of his tome on his page nor has he posted any comments reiterating his feelings towards the likes of Klinsmann, Magath, van Gaal, et al.

Facebook screenshot
Even Bundesliga Facebook updates lack spicy gossipImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Lahm mostly writes about his joy at winning a match or some extra-curricular charity event he was involved with, in much the same vein as fellow Bayern star Bastian Schweinsteiger who uses his Facebook page to pass on his insight into the final result of each game he plays in.

Even during the potentially explosive transfer window where loyalties are tested and mind games played, there's very little controversy in the Bundesliga's alternate cyber-reality.

What could be considered the most edgy use of social media in recent times by a German star during this phase of the season is the decision taken by German national goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to use his Facebook account to announce to his 363, 654 'friends' that he was leaving Schalke 04 for Bayern Munich this summer.

However, rather than using the platform to deliver a parting shot at the management - which is perhaps what would have happened had Neuer been a Premiership player with a Twitter account - the ‘keeper merely wanted to let the fans know personally of his plans to move on after growing up among them on Schalke's terraces.

"Twitter generally does not yet have the reach and importance in Germany that it has in English-speaking countries," Clariss Judman, the Borussia Dortmund blogger at the Bundesliga Offside, told Deutsche Welle. "It seems Facebook is the medium of choice for German players and coaches. The Economist also recently reported that we Germans generally tend to use social networking sites a lot less than our European neighbors and that the German blogosphere is also much smaller."

Bundesliga stars tread carefully

From browsing through its pages, it becomes clear that when German players do use Twitter, they're hardly likely to incur the wrath of their clubs with their updates. One of those who occasionally takes to Twitter is FC Cologne's Lukas Podolski who tweets sporadically on such topics as his latest sponsorship deal or the color of his team's new away shirt. It's safe to say that Cologne's lawyers won't get rich from cases arising from the libellous rantings of Prinz Poldi.

Screenshot from Twitter
Twitter is not as popular with more guarded Germans

"Podolski, [Schalke's] Lewis Holtby, Eljiro Elia [ex-Hamburg] and Ryan Babel are the most active on Twitter, although they never tweet anything controversial and tend to use lots of smiley faces," said Judman. "Former Wolfsburg striker Mikael Forsell used to tweet with abandon and put some strange stuff out there but nobody ever said anything or tried to get him to stop."

"Players in Germany seem to know that it can be kind of dangerous to express too many opinions or reveal too much of themselves, and not only via Twitter," Hoffenheim reporter Kleinert said. "Many of the younger players don't want to say a wrong word in public in case it damages their career or image, or they're afraid of the response from journalists or their club. The Premiership players don't seem to have that."

When it comes to social media in the Bundesliga, Facebook is viewed as a less scurrilous tool than Twitter, with most clubs choosing to update their FB pages instead of using a Twitter feed. "We want to concentrate on serious reporting," Stefan Mennerich, the new media manager at Bayern Munich - which has around 1.9 million 'friends' on Facebook - recently told Germany's Focus magazine. "The thought of Twitter for our purposes is too tabloid."

Different cultures, different approaches

Perhaps that's where the difference lies between the English Premiership and the Bundesliga when it comes to social media tastes. Where the Germans see social media platforms as a way of passing on news and facts to the fans, the stars of the English game see them as a way of exchanging gossip and marketing themselves in their own superstar image.

Joey Barton
Joey Barton tends to reveal a lot more via his Twitter accountImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Football is not just about the reporting of the game anymore, it's as much to do with the people and what they do off the pitch," said Bose of his English compatriots. "Players are as much celebrities as they are athletes. These days if someone has a new haircut, it's news. I suppose that also says as much about the media as it does the players."

"Players recognize that what they can put out via Twitter rapidly becomes 'fact' and they can use this to drive an agenda. What used to be said privately in the pub can now be said to millions of people in an instant - and they see it can have an impact and influence events in their favor when before it was a lot harder to do so. Twitter is empowering these players."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Matt Hermann