(This is a version of a story first published Friday. It has been updated. See below)
Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku has demanded more integration of social media into sport by the leading CEOs of companies such as Twitter and Facebook, and by footballers themselves.
While the football season has been dominated by the social media feud between Manchester United and Tottenham, Lukaku has called for “a serious conversation” about the way people consume and interact with sports.
“It’s a global business,” the Belgium international told French sports daily L’Equipe. “If I am talking about football or being at my club, all around the world you talk about football on a daily basis. It’s a huge operation. You can’t talk about it in isolation anymore. From the top CEOs of social media to footballers, to be more integrated.”
Lukaku, who also boasts 18.9 million followers on Twitter, recently posted a photo to his Twitter account of him being beaten up by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, himself the most popular soccer figure on social media, with over 15 million followers. The photo of himself holding his arm behind his head, accompanied by the caption, “Grabbed by the p***y! Goodnight Zlatan,” was condemned by some of Lukaku’s followers, and by former Manchester United captain Roy Keane.
Lukaku hit back at Keane, calling the Newcastle United manager a “fucking idiot” and one of the “worst managers in the history of football.”
But it would seem Lukaku’s Twitter post was out of anger rather than spite. Last month he shared a selfie wearing a t-shirt to celebrate 20 years since the beginning of his time with German club Aachen. He called his former club “the most important career in my life.”
Even in a fractious age of social media, Lukaku sees no need to ditch his social media platforms. “For me it’s not about catching the attention of the average person,” he said. “I don’t see any harm in sharing my stories. To be yourself.”
Steven Gerrard, who is another of the most popular football personalities on social media, has similar views.
“We don’t need footballers to feel like the good guys,” the former Liverpool and Rangers captain said. “We just need footballers who are open and honest and capable of giving their opinion on things, so I never want any athlete to feel like they’re the last man on the block. When they put the shirt on, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t take responsibility.”
Gerrard, who retired this week after a glittering career in both club and international football, also believes that social media’s overall negative effect on the game is overstated.
“Social media was in its infancy 10 years ago and has been in its infancy since,” Gerrard told L’Equipe. “It’s increased steadily but to think of it as a massive factor in the decline of football is just a ridiculous stance.
“I think that because it’s viewed in a negative light, it negatively affects sport. And I don’t think sport can afford any negativity, whether it’s social media or new ways for people to watch football. But if your focus is Twitter or Instagram, you have to realize that this is also happening off the pitch.
“Life is changing rapidly. Soccer has got bigger and bigger, but when it comes to social media, we’ve got to acknowledge that there’s actually a good crop of young athletes and we should start to let them be themselves and admire it. Don’t do it by filtering everything we see.”
Alan Shearer, who plays down the influence social media has on the game, said that Lukaku’s “retaliatory” tweet should have been his reaction to his own sending off against Aachen, in a Champions League match five years ago.
“He should have just tweeted: ‘I was wrong in the second half,’” Shearer said. “But he did it to get a reaction and then cause another media storm.”
Lukaku was banned for two games after receiving a red card for diving and then was told by UEFA he had to carry out 80 hours of community service. He had already been arrested and charged with assault during an altercation with officers in Chelsea the previous month.
So how does Lukaku see social media as a tool for positive change?
“Social media enables people who don’t understand football, who don’t know exactly what’s going on on the pitch, to get to know all about what’s going on,” he said. “It allows fans to see someone different and get educated into the sport.”
Steve McNicholas is the managing editor of The Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom.