May 26, 2018, saw a nightmare end to a fairytale season for Liverpool FC as the English side took on Spanish giants Real Madrid in the Champions League final. In anticipation of one of the largest football competitions in the world, and certainly the pinnacle of club football, tensions were running high as fans donned their colors and gathered in stadiums, pubs, and their own living rooms waiting to see what the result would bring: a sixth title for Liverpool or a third consecutive title for Real Madrid.
But the match didn’t just play out in Kiev or on our televisions, it played out on Twitter, too, as an estimated 9.4 million posts hit the servers, giving a play-by-play of the match in terms not exactly suitable for a pundit to say on air. Social media platforms, Twitter being indisputably the favorite, have changed the way we support sport, bringing us closer to other fans, the clubs, and the players themselves. Social media breaks down the barrier between us and them.
Loris Karius, perhaps Liverpool’s most active squad member on social media, took the loss the hardest. After a clash with Real captain Sergio Ramos, the goalkeeper found himself fumbling between the sticks, committing his first costly error of the night just a few moments later. There wasn’t just a delivery of goalscoring opportunities, those opportunities were practically gift wrapped and sent right to Real’s feet: a simple roll out was intercepted by Karim Benzema before being tapped into an empty net. The #KariusOut bandwagon that quickly gained steam revealed many fans’ confusion as why Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp hadn’t purchased a decent keeper, but more concerning were the threats already trickling in and right into his notifications.
Last season’s Champions League final demonstrated how live commentary on large events can lead quickly into mob mentality. For the most part, it’s similar opinions about TV shows or discourse on the best dressed at an awards show (for the record: it’s always Rihanna, even when she’s not there) but on sports Twitter, users’ minds tend toward the negative.
On an Instagram previously populated with puppies, vacations, and banana pancakes, Loris Karius issued an apology for his mistakes before going dark. The keeper changed his settings to no longer accept messages from followers and allowed more than a month to pass before posting a photo of himself back at training, but all that time wasn’t enough to calm the backlash. Even amidst posts now laden down with requests to “come to Beşiktaş,” the harassment had not ceased. It got to the point where Karius posted to his stories, “I pray that it passes and good things come to you.”
Karius isn’t the only recipient of this type of harassment. Liverpool’s own Dejan Lovren, always on the receiving end of criticism, found himself seeking police involvement after his family was targeted through Instagram last year. Retired match official Howard Webb received threats that saw him under armed guard at the World Cup in South Africa. The threats that Karius received followed him from the final, finding their way not only into his own notifications but also targeting his family and friends throughout the summer.
It’s no surprise, then, that Karius suffered a lack of confidence. As preseason began, the Reds’ keeper found himself fumbling against sides like Chester City and Tranmere Rovers as the online criticism spilled into in-match abuse. Liverpool, having been looking into new goalkeeping options, then signed Alisson from Roma for a (since-broken) world-record fee, prompting speculation about whether or not a move away from the English spotlight would be beneficial for Karius.
Something shifted in support for Karius, however. A player with so much social media presence, a player who had received so much hate through that same medium, became the subject of a new kind of campaign as players and supporters rallied around him to help rebuild his confidence. Iker Casillas, former Spain and Real goalkeeper, championed Karius all summer, going so far as to post a compilation of all of his own goalkeeping mistakes. Liverpool legend John Arne Riise, on tour in the US with the squad, continuously called for “leaving the kid alone.” Teammate Mohamed Salah posted, “Ignore those who hate, it has happened to the best of players,” while Lovren commented on a Liverpool fan account that had criticized Karius as not being worthy of the Liverpool shirt saying, “You’re full of shit.”
A true turning point for Karius was Liverpool’s final preseason match. Against Torino at home, coach Jürgen Klopp subbed the German keeper on for Alisson in the second half to thunderous applause from the Anfield crowd. Videos of the reception quickly flooded Instagram and Twitter as commentary focused on the reaction of Liverpool’s former number one. After the match, Karius posted a thank you for the welcome back he experienced at Anfield as his comments flooded with words of encouragement to stay in the Liverpool shirt and fight for his place.
Toward the end of the Turkish transfer window, a crowd of Beşiktaş fans and media met Loris Karius in Istanbul, where he signed a two-year loan deal with the Süper Lig side. Although Karius seems happy to leave, and does so with the support of Liverpool fans, the situation that led to his departure leaves much to be desired. In one of the biggest leagues in the world, is this treatment something players just have to deal with? Being the only person in their position on the field, it certainly seems like this is the treatment goalkeepers should come to expect. But criticism is one thing and, as cathartic as it may be to share your frustrations, to have those frustrations validated by others, there needs to be more thought behind it. As supporters, we “@” the players just like they’re our friends but the harsh reality is that’s not what they are. It would be wise to consider just how harmful those instant moments of thought are. In Karius’ case, we saw the toll the harassment took on the pitch and the pressure lifting when he was met with support instead.
During Karius’ Beşiktaş debut against Bursaspor, the opposition’s captain, twenty-one-year-old Ertuğrul Ersoy, jumped the barrier shortly before the start of the second half. Confronting his own fans, he asked that debris not be thrown against rivals before raising his arms to resume the singing. The classy gesture seemed to say, “you’re here to support us, not rail against them.”
There’s a time and a place for banter but being a supporter means, first and foremost, being there for your team and for your players. In Liverpool’s case, the anthem says it all. There are no performance-based clauses. If you’re a Red, you’ll never walk alone.