For Gary Lineker, Italia 90 was the seminal moment at which football became a sport for everyone in England. Looking back on the tournament, 25 years on, he told the BBC, “lots of different kinds of people got interested in football, all different classes of people.”
Whether that World Cup really was the exact point at which football finally crossed the English class boundaries is still debated by sociologists, but there is no question about the power of International football tournaments to unite us. Gazza’s flick over Colin Hendry for the second goal against Scotland in Euro 96, Owen’s solo run against Argentina in 98 and the young Rooney’s spectacular arrival at Euro 2004 are all moments that have brought those of us hailing from south of the border together. At these times, our disagreements are forgotten and we come together as one.
But does football have a deeper power to repair the divisions in our society? Can the World Cup help us come to terms with Brexit or to better understand each other in the various debates that rage around discrimination, immigration and sexism?
To answer these questions, we need to think about how we will use social media during the World Cup. I follow football all year round on my Twitter account, @Soccermatics. In some ways my life on Twitter is a bubble. I talk to fellow nerds about stats and football, and Twitter’s filtering algorithm makes sure I see other like-minded geeks’ tweets first.
But what I see on Twitter is by no means not limited to events on the pitch. I have seen calls for Manchester United to start a women’s football team, campaigns by Leicester City fans to stop homophobic abuse on the terraces and pleas by Borussia Dortmund fans to welcome refugees from Syria to Germany.
Paul Widdop, research fellow in cultural and leisure sociology at Leeds Becket University, studied how Twitter was used to spread the message when Liverpool fans protested about ticket prices at Anfield in 2016.
“The close connections between Liverpool fans allowed them to mobilise quickly to organise the #walkouton77 campaign”, he told me, “but equally important were the weaker ties to people who didn’t necessarily support the club and weren’t directly affected by the price increases.” News about the protest spread rapidly, with Gary Lineker tweeting his support, and questions were soon raised in parliament. The club backed down and agreed to sell cheaper tickets within 24 hours of the protest.
World in motion
This power of our social network to change the world is not limited to causes and campaigns within football. After the Brexit vote and the European Championships in 2016 I decided to look in more detail at my Twitterverse, analysing my network of connections.
A big part of my social network is a tight cluster of scientists who follow each other. Academics like me tend to be similar in the political information we access, following newspapers – like The Guardian and the Financial Times – that were pro-Remain in the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU. We are part of a pro-Remain academic bubble.
Other links in my network are more spread out, though. Through football, I am connected to people who don’t know each other but do know me. My choice of who to follow when it comes to talking about the beautiful game is more random than in science. Sometimes I’ll share a few tweets back and forth about a match or a player, enjoy the conversation and decide to follow the user I’ve been talking to. I end up interacting with a much more varied group of people, who follow newspapers that were both pro-remain and pro-leave—like The Times and the Daily Mail.
There is often a strong working-class, socialist ethos among many of the Liverpool fans I follow. But I also follow journalists at right-wing UK newspapers and media outlets. Many of the stats nerds I connect with come from the USA and tend to support the Democrats and retweet anti-Trump articles, but I also follow coaches working at a grassroots level across the country, who sympathise with Republican ideals and who are motivated by Christian beliefs.
I am by no means unique. While online, most people are part of a network, created by football and other hobbies, that connects them to others with very different political views. A scientific study by Facebook, published in the journal Science in 2015, drew the same conclusion: we are exposed to a wide range of opinions online.
Bob Huckfeldt, Professor at the University of California, Davis, who has spent more than 30 years investigating our political discussions, has found that much of the information we gain about politics comes from people we meet through sport and hobbies. We tend to listen carefully to these friends and acquaintances, even if we don’t agree with their point of view. It is here that football offers the possibility to bring us together, not just in celebration, but also in online conversation.
The World Cup is a time at which all of our online connections become stronger and our exposure to others’ opinions increases. Social media opens us up to diversity.
It isn’t all good news. Paul Widdop expects the World Cup to be used as part of the geo-political war between East and West. “There will be an attempt by some to push the Russian macho-centered world-view and some English fans will inevitably post more negative views about the host country”, he says.
Russian-based online trolls have, over the past five years, been arguing aggressively about issues related to their own country’s national security and pushing a nationalistic agenda in other countries.
The influence of trolls remains limited to relatively small groups, though. A recent study by researchers at University College London, working together with colleagues in the USA and Cyprus, found that Russian trolls were very limited in their ability to spread news content and unable to take their agenda viral.
Reading these scientific studies has led me to share both Lineker’s optimism about the power of World Cups to bring us together and his apparent faith in social media as a tool for debate and change. These two will combine in Russia 2018, and maybe we will find a new way of thinking about some of the political issues that currently divide us.
When it comes to online interactions, you should follow New Order’s advice from 1990, “express yourself, create the space”. It is football that has got the world in communication.