Zinedine Zidane of France did not apologize on MySpace after his infamous head butt in the 2006 WC final. Diego Maradona of Argentina did not address his 1986 knuckle-assisted Hand of God goal on America Online, a digital community that did not become prominent for another five years.
Controversies have arisen in World Cups since a referee inadvertently blew the final whistle six minutes early during a match at the inaugural tournament, in 1930, but the dramas of this year’s event — including a bizarre bite and a backbreaking tackle — have played out with a remarkable immediacy on social media.
Over the last month, players like Neymar, Suárez and the United States reserve forward Wondolowski have offered confessions, explanations, interpretations and amplifications on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. “If they can jump online, say something, and see it traverse the world in real time, it makes life that much easier,” said Peter Shankman, a social media consultant.
Most recently, fans have been fretting over an injury to Neymar. The player who kneed him, Juan Camilo Zúñiga, made only a fleeting comment or two as he rushed past members of the news media after the game.
It did not take long for Zúñiga to begin receiving death threats and racist taunts from Brazilian fans on Twitter and he took to social media a day later to explain himself.
“There was no bad intention, malice or negligence on my part,” he wrote in a letter posted on his Facebook page. Zúñiga also addressed Neymar personally, telling him: “I admire you, respect you and consider you one of the best players in the world. I hope you recover and return quickly.” Neymar did not publicly engage with Zúñiga on social media, but he did address his nation of frothing fans directly.
In a YouTube video, Neymar spoke emotionally about how his “dream has not ended yet” because his teammates could go on to win the World Cup without him. “Another dream of mine was to play in the World Cup final, but I won’t be able to do that now,” he added.
While some professional sports teams place limits on what their athletes should share on the Internet, the Brazilian players — even before Neymar’s medical journey became available for consumption — have not been shy.
Instagram in particular is popular with the Brazilians, and pictures such as Dani Alves’s selfie with a milk bottle and David Luiz’s underwater homage to heavy-metal music have made fans feel that their beloved stars are accessible.
Neymar’s injury was hardly the only story to play out on the web. When Suárez sank his teeth into the left shoulder of Italy’s Chiellini during a group-stage game, theories about digitally enhanced pictures of the bite marks popped up almost immediately.
Suárez and Chiellini gave brief interviews after the game, but, as is often the case, the players took to social media to offer clarifications once the emotional level of the situation had calmed.
Fortunately, the players at the World Cup have managed to avoid controversies like the one involving a Swiss athlete’s dismissal from the 2012 London Olympics after a tweet that insulted South Koreans. Two airlines, however, have bumbled into problems with World Cup-related tweets.
After the United States beat Ghana, Delta posted a picture of the Statue of Liberty next to the Americans’ score and a picture of a giraffe next to Ghana’s – not realizing, apparently, that there are no giraffes in Ghana (the airline apologized).
In a post on the Dutch airline KLM’s Twitter account after the Netherlands beat Mexico, the text “Adios Amigos!” was accompanied by a picture of a “Departures” board altered to include a caricature of a man with a mustache, a poncho and a sombrero. Again, the airline apologized.
Perhaps no social media post, though, had as much feeling as one from Wondolowski, the United States forward, who missed a seemingly unmissable shot from close range in the Americans’ Round of 16 game against Belgium.
If Wondolowski had scored, the United States probably would have won; instead, his shot went high and wide. The United States lost in extra time. Wondolowski took to social media to say he was sorry to all American fans.
“I’m gutted to have let down everyone,” he wrote, “but especially my teammates. It’s been an incredible ride, but I know this will make me stronger.”