Football has a big problem: passionate fans who are internet trolls

Football is a beautiful game, but the beautiful game can turn ugly when fans take their frustration on players online.

Football has a big problem: passionate fans who are internet trolls

Out of the 482 professional football matches Yakubu 'The Yak' Aiyegbeni played in his career, one fixture remains etched in his memory. It's a game he'll likely be reminded of for eternity

Now retired at 41, Yakubu Aiyegbeni is still haunted by the open goal he missed in a crucial 2010 World Cup match against South Korea. Trailing by a goal, Nigeria desperately needed a win to advance to the knockout stages. Aiyegbeni, one of Nigeria’s most accomplished players and a star striker for Everton Football Club at the time, inexplicably played the ball wide from a mere four yards away from an empty goalpost.

Three minutes later, Aiyegbeni calmly slotted home a penalty to equalise at 2-2. But the damage was already done. Nigeria couldn't find another goal, and the match finished in a draw. This result sent Nigeria crashing out of the World Cup, and for Aiyegbeni, it cast a long shadow over his career.

Even though he played for Nigeria for two more years and retired in 2012 as the country's third-highest goal scorer, Nigerians haven't forgotten the infamous 2010 World Cup miss. Comments about that match still linger on his Instagram posts to this day.

“Yes, I miss it call the police 😂👮” Ayegbeni who rarely replies, quipped at an Instagram user @Kenzzy453, who commented, “U miss goal oo” (a jab meaning "You missed a goal") on a post he made on February 10, 2024.  

Aiyegbeni's response highlights his defiance against internet trolls, but it’s a reaction not typical of every footballer. Effectively navigating such negativity can be a significant challenge for many footballers.

'People still message me' – Yakubu haunted by 2010 World Cup miss -  AfrosportNow
A picture of the sitter Yakubu Aiyegbeni missed at the 2010 World Cup | Source: AfroSport

A 2022 study by FIFA found that more than 50% of footballers playing in the European Championship and African Cup of Nations were targets of cyberbullying and online abuse. The study which was based on the 2020 Euro and African Cup of Nations (AFCON) competition revealed that most of the abuse originated from the home nation of the players being targeted: 38% from the UK and 19% from Egypt following their penalty shootout defeat to Senegal in the AFCON final. 

Despite FIFA's pledge to launch an in-tournament moderation service for both men's and women's football going forward, online bullying continues to plague the sport, suggesting their efforts have so far been largely ineffective. 

Devasted fans at the 2023 AFCON

On February 11 2024, about two billion people around the world watched the finals of the 2023 AFCON which saw Nigeria lose out to the host nation, Côte d'Ivoire. The devastating loss hurt Nigerians so much that they took to social media to hurl insults at the players, singling out a few whose performances weren’t deemed up to par. 

Nigerian Striker Victor Osimhen sitting on the floor distraught at the end of the 2023 AFCON finals match | Source: Guardian Nigeria

“Online bullying has been around for a long time in Sports,” says Deji Ogeyingbo, Sports Journalist and country manager of Making of Champions.” “It’s prevalent in sports because fans are passionate; the emotions from the game push them to the edge. The fans care about the results; when the players aren’t delivering, it’s an issue. But they have to understand that footballers are humans and they make mistakes.”

For Bukayo Ewuoso, a passionate football fan and avid Manchester United supporter, it’s not out of place to give feedback to footballers who are at work when on the pitch. 

“It’s just like at work, if you’re not meeting your KPIs then people can call you out,” Ewuoso says. “I can tweet and say this guy has been playing rubbish consistently and he deserves to be benched so that he’ll know that there’s competition. But where I think the line is crossed is when people mention them or go to their pages to make vile comments. No, I won’t do that.”

These comments have serious implications, sometimes sending the players into depression or causing the players to refuse to play for the National team. Following Nigeria's AFCON elimination in 2021, goalkeeper Maduka Okoye was subjected to a torrent of online abuse, including threats targeting him and his family. This relentless harassment led him to not only deactivate his social media accounts but also withdraw from international selection for Nigeria.

“It’s a problematic behaviour where Nigerians can’t change their opinions about people. Yakubu wasn’t a terrible player and that miss wasn’t the highlight of his career,” says Kunle Fayiga, a sports writer. “If you remember Yakubu as the prolific striker who played for Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Maccabi Haifa, I don’t see how that World Cup miss will trump those performances.”

Herd mentality, consequences and remedy

These attacks on players predate social media and aren't limited by geography. In a 2023 Netflix documentary about English football player David Beckham, Beckham spoke about the aftermath of his infamous 1998 World Cup red card and the emotional toll of the abuse he faced from fans as a 23-year-old player.  

In Beckham's time, players could tune off or find solace at home with loved ones. Social media, however, has brought the negativity ever closer, making it a constant barrage that permeates even their private lives. Why is this so?

“Social media and online platforms provide a space that makes people feel detached from the consequences of their actions due to the distance and anonymity it provides,” Philip Dimka, a clinical psychologist and trauma therapist explains. “There’s also the herd instinct and bowing to social pressure where people feel everyone is doing it, so let me join.”

But these actions have consequences. One that 19-year-old, Arsenal fan, Ng found out after the teenager was convicted of harassment in Singapore and sentenced to nine months' probation in 2021. Ng had sent threatening messages to Brighton striker Neal Maupay who unintentionally injured Arsenal's goalkeeper, Bernd Leno during a match in June 2020.

“Cyberbullying is a reflection of the level of maturity of the people who bully others,” Dimka says. “It shows they lack inherent empathy, emotional maturity and ability to regulate emotions to understand and perceive the impact of their actions on the well-being of others.”

While the path to effective cyberbullying enforcement may be long, the sanction of Ng serves as a milestone which coincides with a rising demand for more sanctions.

To confront this complex issue, Dimika proposes a multi-pronged approach: raising public awareness, educating footballers, and collaborating with social media platforms.

Already there’s some form of awareness going on with players speaking up and the international community condemning acts of cyberbullying. Nigerian National team captain Ahmed Musa and other important figures spoke out, raising awareness that the line between passionate support and online abuse can be easily crossed. 

The constant talk against cyberbullying can feel ineffective, but perhaps the most powerful solution lies in football fans correcting each other's behaviour.

In the same post where one fan reminded Aiyegbeni of his 2010 World Cup miss, another user intervened, prompting others to follow suit. This exemplifies the power of fans holding each other accountable. We, the fans, owe it to each other to remember that footballers are human beings with feelings, deserving of respect, not unbridled online abuse.

Even the best of us have off days. But for footballers, those moments happen under the unforgiving spotlight of a packed stadium and millions watching at home, a crucible of pressure unlike any most of us will ever face.

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