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Page last updated at 06:30 GMT, Friday, 14 January 2011

Twitter ye not?

Howard Webb

By John Sinnott

Footballers have not always been the most garrulous of souls - until that is, the advent of Twitter.

Suddenly professional footballers are all too happy to share with the world a bite-size stream of consciousness in the space of 140 characters.

Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Savage and Ryan Babel - to name but a few high-profile players - are all tweeting, and prolifically so. Even the taciturn Kenny Dalglish - the only Premier League manager with a Twitter account - has experimented with the medium.

But tweeting has landed Babel in hot water and on Thursday the Dutchman accepted a Football Association charge of improper conduct over a tweet he fired off at the weekend after Liverpool's third-round FA Cup defeat by Manchester United.

The Liverpool star is believed to be the first player charged relating to a post on the social networking site and he will now have a personal hearing on Monday 17 January.

Any attempt by the FA to become the 'Twitter Police' will not only fail but will likely end up with the FA looking foolish

Lawyer Guy Thomas

Babel linked to a mocked-up picture of referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt after the Reds lost 1-0 to United at Old Trafford on Sunday.

In addition to posting a link to the doctored picture of Webb, Babel wrote: "And they call him one of the best referees. That's a joke," though the Liverpool forward was quick to remove the link and apologise on Twitter.

Babel has had plenty of defenders. Dalglish described the tweet "as only a bit of fun", Professional Footballers' Association chief Gordon Taylor labelled the FA as "very precious", while Blackpool manager Ian Holloway has also come out in support of the Dutch winger.

Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel, who does not use Twitter, has described the site as full of "witless bile and poison".

For the likes of Babel, Ferdinand and Savage, with each player having hundreds of thousands of followers, Twitter allows them to disseminate their message on their own terms to fans without having to go through pesky journalists.

But for those journalists - and most major media correspondents use Twitter - players' tweets have provided a steady stream of stories.

That means players are learning that with interaction comes responsibility.

Once that tweet has been sent, there is no going back, even if players try and delete it - as Glen Johnson discovered last weekend when he despatched a less than complimentary tweet about Paul Merson - because it will be quickly retweeted and picked up by the media.

It is understood the FA sees social media no differently to other public forums and has strict rules on alleging bias or questioning the impartiality of officials.

Ryan Babel
Babel has nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter

But one lawyer has warned the FA to tread carefully in its attempts to "police" Twitter.

"This is not a small pond that the FA is dipping into but a huge washing ocean of living comment," wrote lawyer Guy Thomas on his company's SA Law blog.

"The FA had best be careful to remain fair and be seen to be fair, as recent campaigns have shown, if that ocean gets whipped up it can envelope mere national bodies in a single dismissive wave.

"Any attempt by the FA to become the 'Twitter Police' will not only fail but it will also be incredibly unwelcome in the community of Twitter users and likely end up with the FA looking foolish."

Not that the FA is about to appoint a full-time Twitter Tsar to monitor the twittersphere.

England's governing body relies on the media to alert the organisation to any contentious comments, though Thomas warns such an approach leaves the FA hostage to fortune.

"If someone went looking for this I'd be surprised there aren't a lot more examples similar to the Babel case," Thomas told BBC Sport.

FA rules stipulate that any media comments regarding officials should not be of a personal nature, not imply a bias and not attack the integrity of the official.

In the interests of a "healthy debate" players or managers can say that "the referee had a poor game" or "he got the decision wrong".

Asked whether there was any reasonable defence Babel might have mounted to explain his tweet, Thomas believes "it would be hard to in practice defend" given FA rules.

But for supporters it is the FA's lack of consistency that remains frustrating.

Sunderland manager Steve Bruce was fined £2,500 after he labelled referee Andre Marriner's decision to send off the defender Michael Turner for an aerial challenge with Gareth Barry in the Black Cats' defeat at Manchester City in December as "obscene", "a joke" and "an outrage".

Given that punishment, why was Dalglish not charged following Liverpool's FA Cup defeat by United after the Scot described Webb's penalty award for Daniel Agger's tackle on Dimitar Berbatov as "a joke"?

And the need for the FA to be seen to be even handed is just as applicable to cracking down on "inappropriate" players' tweets.

Robbie Savage
Robbie Savage briefly quit Twitter last year but quickly returned

The day before Babel's misdemeanour Blackburn forward El-Hadji Diouf's alleged abused of Jamie Mackie after the QPR forward broke his leg, prompting a flurry of tweets from the Rangers camp.

Diouf has insisted he did not say anything to the QPR striker during Saturday's FA Cup third-round tie at Ewood Park.

"After the game I argued with some players, that's it," said Diouf. "When the lad broke his leg, I never said anything back to him. I never talked to him, you can ask Benjani or Ryan Nelsen.

The FA is "looking" into those comments made against Diouf by a number of QPR players on Twitter, but it has yet to charge them.

QPR manager Neil Warnock has subsequently banned his players from using Twitter to talk about club matters.

"I've had a word with the lads about this: they can use Twitter all they want as long as it has nothing to do with the club," Warnock told the Fulham Chronicle.

In the United States the NFL's Twitter policy stipulates that "players must not tweet 90 minutes before kick-off and until they have met post-match media obligations met".

Players that break that rule are automatically fined $25,000 (£15,750), though the FA argues that a Twitter policy should come from the Premier League.

The NBA also stipulates that mobile phones and other communication devices cannot be used from 45 minutes before a match starts and until after the players have finished their post-match responsibilities to traditional media outlets.

But social media expert Daniel McLaren, founder of the UK Sports Network, believes it will take time for the introduction of these "cool-down" periods in England.

"The reason the NBA acted was that the players were tweeting from the bench and there was a fear of tactics being exposed," said McLaren.

"This hasn't been the case in football up to now. What we've seen is players getting in trouble well after games have taken place - whether that be hours or days - and involving more than just games.

"What the FA or the Premier League need to do is support the clubs and offer education to them and their players.

"There is still a lack of knowledge of the platforms and who can see them plus a lot of naivety among the young players.

"If we want to spread the word even more globally, the FA or the Premier League need to take the lead."

At the moment Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, Sunderland and Birmingham City are the most active Premier League clubs in the social media space.

"Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool are leading the way, though at the moment there are no guidelines given out to players and I don't think their full potential has been realised," said McLaren.

"With a player you can spend a lot of time and money on getting a big presence but they may then be sold to another club.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo has close to 1.5m Twitter followers

"To be honest, many footballers don't have the motivation to be on social media.

"They are not the same as golfers, athletes and cyclists who are more individual and rely on sponsorship deals, with exposure through social media as an important part of that strategy. This doesn't hold up with footballers who earn £50,000 or more each week."

But in these more austere economic times social media offers a potentially lucrative market for both players and clubs.

Real Madrid has a remarkable seven million fans on its facebook page, which the club can use to direct supporters to its official website online shop.

"Compared with the traditional business of television rights and sponsorship, social media still generates a very small part of the club's turnover but it's also a good amount of money," Real Madrid Online Marketing & Digital Business Manager Oscar Ugaz told the UK Sports Network website in 2010.

"The other revenues are tried and tested ways but we in the new media department are always exploring what will be the future."

And what was Ugaz's advice to Real's players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso who use Twitter? "It's better to use commonsense and tell players not to say online what they wouldn't say in public," said Real's digital guru.

Best take extra care with those tweets Rio, Robbie and Ryan.

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see also
Babel accepts FA Twitter charge
13 Jan 11 |  Liverpool
SFA issues social network warning
10 Jan 11 |  Scotland
Dalglish fumes at 'joke' penalty
09 Jan 11 |  FA Cup
FA 'looks at Diouf abuse fallout'
10 Jan 11 |  FA Cup
Savage turns down Vancouver move
23 Jan 11 |  Derby
Bent apologises for online rant
31 Jul 09 |  Tottenham
Shots striker for sale over tweet
05 Jan 11 |  Aldershot


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