When Cristiano Ronaldo was unveiled by Al-Nassr on Dec. 31, 2022, the Portuguese journalist Pedro Sepuleda reported that the footage received more than 3.5 billion views globally.
It was a sizeable claim in every respect. After all, viewing figures for the FIFA World Cup Final in Qatar less than two weeks earlier had peaked at 1.5 billion. Were we to believe that twice that number were interested in watching “CR7” parade around King Abdullah Sports City than tune in to see Argentina face France for the biggest prize in football?
Well, yes, actually.
How superstar players can affect a club profile
Whether those 3.5 billion views were even close to being accurate or not — and many Reddit threads are devoted to the contrary — you could bet your life that the vast majority had not heard of Al-Nassr Club prior to Ronaldo’s move to Riyadh. Overnight the club’s Instagram figures rocketed from 850,000 to more than 10 million. At time of writing, almost 11 months later, they sit at 20.8 million — more than AC Milan, Newcastle United, Atletico Madrid and many more established UEFA Champions League sides.
This was not an isolated incident of player power on social media.
When Lionel Messi arrived at Inter Miami just seven months later, the five-year-old club saw a boost of more than 10 million Instagram followers. Numbers that made the David Beckham-owned side the most followed MLS team on the platform. It also ensured that they surpassed all NFL, MLB, and NHL clubs to become the fourth most-followed sporting franchise in the US.
Supporting the player, not the club
“I used to be a huge Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo fan when I was younger,” says Hamza Waqar from Dubai. “Then I saw how beautifully this No. 10 named Messi played — as well as Samuel Eto’o — as Barcelona destroyed a solid Man Utd team (in the 2009 Champions League final). After that I started watching more of Barcelona. I became a Messi fan and was truly upset when he left Barcelona as I knew what it meant to him. But I also realized that it was better for him (to leave), as the Barcelona management was becoming toxic.”
Of course, for every fan who finds a club to love via a player they admire, there are others who are simply there for the entertainment.
“I come from The Hague,” says Dutch football journalist Ruben Aartsen, “and the local club is ADO Den Haag, but I’ve never really liked them. My dad wasn’t a loyal one-club fan either, so I didn’t grow up with that pressure of following a certain team. Instead I enjoy watching real ballers like Messi, Luca Modric, Jamal Musiala, Marco Verratti. I like these elegant players who seem like they just go out and have fun.”
Pele and the rise of player power
You can probably chart the modern rise of the individual back to a failed football experiment in the 1970s. While names on the back of shirts had been a fixture in baseball since the 1960s — Chicago White Sox owner, Bill Veeck, wanting his players to be more recognisable to TV viewers — it was adopted by a nascent North American Soccer League, as the money men behind it delivered superstars such as Franz Beckenbauer and Pele in a bid to help the sport thrive in the US.
Despite liberal splashes of razzmatazz, and a peak in popularity around 1977, the experiment bombed and the NASL folded in 1985. But the marketing men took note. When the English First Division became the Premier League just seven years later, player names were proudly emblazoned on the back of each shirt.
If players were now becoming financial drivers to rival their clubs, one man would eventually tip the balance. In the recent Netflix documentary “Beckham” it is claimed that the former England captain’s move from Manchester United to Real Madrid was due largely to his influence in key global markets. No player could compete with David Beckham’s popularity — among football fans and non-fans alike — meaning that his move would be a lucrative success for the Spanish giants, regardless of how things went on the pitch.
As the commodification of football players increased, it was perhaps inevitable that fans would alter their perception of them as well. Rather than be stuck with a club which may or may not be successful, they would now follow the stardust offered by Beckham, Ronaldo, or Messi instead.
“I have affection for lots of teams, but I couldn’t care less if they win or lose,” says Aartsen. “If a player I like scores a hat-trick but his team loses, I am happy. Of course the downside is that I’ve never really experienced that unconditional love for a club, which in a weird way I miss sometimes. Then again, when I see the faces of my friends who support Ajax (the Dutch champions are currently bottom of the Eredivisie), then maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”
The reality of the modern day football fan
“There’s no doubt that changes in technology have meant the very best footballers probably have a following that extends beyond the club, region and nation,” explains Matthew Taylor, professor of history at De Montfort University in the UK. “But, to a degree, the habit to follow star players has always been there. We know that in parts of the northwest of England, many football fans would travel to watch the likes of Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews (in the 1940s and ‘50s) and, as a result, a large number of supporters claimed to be emotionally attached to more than one team.”
While daily arguments rage on X about the requirements for authenticity as a football fan, the fact is that the one-club affiliation rule has always enjoyed a certain degree of flexibility.
“We know that cross-club support was an important part of football culture in parts of England at various times,” continues Taylor. “Before the First World War, it wasn’t unusual for Liverpudlians to watch both Everton and Liverpool on a regular basis; the same was true of the Manchester clubs during the 1950s. This sense of regional solidarity does seem to have declined since the 1960s, with one-club affiliations becoming much more common. But I think it is wrong to assume this has been, and is, always the case.”
Can modern football fans kill club community?
While modern day football has undoubtedly seen a rise in fans that follow the name on the back of the shirt as opposed to the badge on the front, it is unlikely that this will have a major impact on clubs in their role as traditional community heartbeat.
“I think the rootedness of most clubs in the communities out of which they emerged decades ago is more robust than we may think,” says Taylor. “Supporting a player is fine, but the research on transnational football support indicates that most fans from other places identify most of all with the ‘real’ supporters and the ‘real’ place. Many visit when they can, to soak up the ‘authentic’ atmosphere of the club with which they have attached themselves. I think that’s unlikely to disappear easily, even in our modern increasingly globalized and transnational world.”
Away from a club that is connected to you via geography or parental influence, is it so strange for a football fan to simply want to watch their favorite player and enjoy the magic they bring? In that respect, the younger generation of supporters perhaps have a far healthier relationship with the game than many die-hard fans.
“I love Ronaldo because of his dedication, skill and the hard work that he puts into his career and game,” says 11-year-old Shahzain Hussain from Dubai. “I try to learn all his skills and apply them whenever I play a football match for my school … Because of Ronaldo, I still admire Real Madrid but now I follow Al-Nassr Club.”
And, maybe, this is the key. Find what you love and follow it. That might seem like a simplified version of football fandom, but the reality is that that the modern football gatekeepers on social media have made things far more difficult than they perhaps need to be.
When Pele was single-handedly dragging the New York Cosmos through a turgid NASL season, he was asked by the journalist David Hirshey how, even though he was regularly feted by the high and mighty, he never lost his sense of boyish wonder. What was his key to longevity in football?
“I simply stay as a child,” he said. “A child who loves the game.”