No matter the outcome, England have already won our digital hearts

Win or lose, England’s social media presence at this World Cup has been unbeatable.

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Whether you’re apathetic about the World Cup, an England die-hard, or an ABE supporter (anyone but England), you have to admit: England’s players’ tweets have been fire. On Tuesday night, just minutes after winning their now infamous penalty shoot-out, players Kyle Walker, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard were tweeting masterful memes of themselves from the actual match – garnering hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets.

For once England’s line-up for this World Cup is incredibly likeable. Chris Deerin has written for the New Statesman about the swathes of Scots turning their support towards England because of the loveable, hard-working players. The redemption of Gareth Southgate and his apparently even-tempered, kind personality makes him someone you want to do well and see win. Every statement, press conference, and article by, from, and about these players make them increasingly charming and affable. The team is near universally liked. And a lot of it is down to their digital output.

Just before the World Cup began, the England squad’s media presence started to become significantly more personal. Even if the content wasn’t slick, smooth, or, frankly, very interesting, the players started presenting themselves as a down-to-earth, wholesome bunch. We saw a video of Jesse Lingard packing his suitcase to head to Russia, we saw clips of Jordan Henderson and Trent Arnold FaceTiming fans back at home, we saw the team spotting, lifting, running, and giggling together as they prepped for the tournament. Their digital presence bgan to be both innocent and ubiquitous; the team’s content was anywhere and everywhere and how they presented themselves online helped shape the public’s opinion of the squad.  

 

When Jess says he can bench more than you

A post shared by Marcus Rashford (@marcusrashford) on

Once the games kicked off, the social media output increased. Players have been sharing behind-the-scenes pictures and videos of training, published heartfelt messages to fans after wins and losses, and playfully teased one another on Twitter and Instagram. Harry Kane, England’s captain for this World Cup, has failed to receive less than 100,000 likes per Instagram post since the tournament began, with the majority of his posts receiving over 200,000.

An article written by Raheem Sterling for The Players’ Tribune (a new media platform for athletes to speak directly to fans, launched since the last World Cup) made especially big waves online. In the piece, titled “It Was All A Dream,” Sterling spoke about his life growing up as the son of a single mother and immigrant in north west London, and his fraught rise to footballing fame. The piece addressed his reputation in the tabloids, urging readers to ignore the papers because  they only want to “steal your joy.”

“They just want to pull you down,” he said. “I’m telling you right now… England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream.”

Sterling had previously received widespread flack for using legal highs, his multiple arrests, and sporting a tattoo of a gun. The article has helped reshape his reputation – from someone many saw as an irresponsible party boy to a loving son, a hard-worker, and most importantly a fighter.

Fans have also, even if inadvertently, played their part in changing England’s reputation through digital means. The hashtag #GarethSouthgateWould went viral on Twitter after Tuesday night’s win, with the tag yielding almost entirely pro-England, heartwarming posts, creating hypothetical scenarios in which Southgate would behave in-line with his newfound reputation as an all-around good guy.

“#GarethSouthgateWould Pay an equal share of the restaurant bill, even though he didn't have a starter and only drank the tap water” one viral tweet read. “#GarethSouthgateWould pop in to make sure your nan's ok while you're on holiday, get her a bit of shopping in and sit with her to watch Countdown” read another.

While social media has been mainstream for the last two World Cups, it’s rarely been used quite like this. The proliferation of memes, home-video style content, and just seemingly genuine interactions of support, love, and excitement between the players have been a refreshing change from the often sterile, boilerplate posts you get from official accounts. However, although England’s content at this World Cup might be more personable and more human, it is far from being unpolished. Multiple communications and social media professionals are in Russia right now and have been advising and training players on their media presences in the lead up to this World Cup (although it’s not known whether or not the players accounts are actually being managed by these social media teams.)

When asked about the team's digital strategy for this World Cup, England’s social media manager Jim Lucas declined to comment. In fact, he said that no one from the Football Association team would be available to comment on social media until after the tournament was over.

Saturday’s quarter-final match against Sweden is guaranteed to be gut-wrenching for fans no matter what the outcome. But even if England do face defeat against the Swedes in Samara, it’s unlikely to take the shine off the reputation they’ve built with their cleverely crafted approach to communicating with fans online.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.