Friday Newsletter: Reflecting on Twitter, Soccer and the World Cup
And tracking down my first tweet from 13 years ago. Plus your Mailbag questions answered.
On the eve of another World Cup, I find myself thinking about Twitter again.
Elon Musk is finalizing his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter this week, and I find myself reflecting on the platform’s past, present and future as I get ready to head to Qatar on November 13. And what I have realized is that for as many issues as Twitter has—and believe me, there are plenty—my thoughts are a lot more positive than negative.
I started on Twitter in the spring of 2009. Karen Dmochowsky (now Menez), a friend who worked in Sports Illustrated’s communications department, suggested that I get on the platform and said she thought it might work well with the voice I brought to my soccer and college basketball Mailbag columns.
I was living in South Africa for six months while my wife worked at a hospital in Johannesburg, and the first soccer event I tweeted about was the 2009 Confederations Cup that I was covering there.
The U.S. upset Spain and got to the final of that Confederations Cup, where it lost 3-2 to Brazil, and all I remember about Twitter during the tournament was that it was fun—and a great way to interact instantly with readers. The same was true while covering the World Cup the following year in South Africa.
I dropped basketball and started covering soccer full-time in 2009, the same year my first book came out, and Twitter had a huge impact on my work. It made the soccer world a smaller, more manageable place. On the intake side, I get global soccer news from people I trust in real time. On the connection side, I’m able to communicate (publicly and privately) with colleagues around the planet, many of whom have become my friends.
And on the output side, I can get my thoughts and work out to a much bigger audience. Nothing has made my follower number bigger than World Cups, and no World Cup has brought more new followers than World Cup 2014 (when Twitter put me on a list of suggested U.S. account follows for the tournament).
What are some of my personal favorite soccer moments on Twitter? Here are a few:
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Are there downsides to Twitter? Oh, you’d better believe it. I’ve said some things that I would have been better off not saying, things I now regret, things I have apologized to people for. I’m still trying to find the right balance between “try to be a good person” (online and off) and expressing critical opinions that I know some people will take exception with. A lot of those types of things are part of the job, though.
And then there’s what Twitter can subject you to. My friend Wright Thompson, the terrific ESPN writer who decided to get off Twitter, put it this way: “I don’t get why I have to give people access to my pocket. I don’t understand why anyone in the world just gets to motherf--- me and I get to read it on my phone. Why would you do that? It’s insane.”
Hate speech, bots, trolls, organized disinformation campaigns, huge numbers of accounts that exist solely to divide everyone: That’s a defining part of Twitter, too, and something the company has done precious little to combat.
And my response to all that has evolved over the years. I barely block anyone now and mute liberally. I only see mentions from people who follow me, which means organized campaigns from non-followers only reach me if I go to the trouble to find them. I’ve gone through stretches when I tweet only to put links to my new work out there, and other stretches when I take Twitter off my phone entirely. (Try it sometime, it’s very liberating!)
When I see all the nonsense on Twitter, I’m glad that our community on GrantWahl.com exists and has thoughtful discussions and debates in our comment sections.
But even acknowledging all of that, I still think Twitter has more positives than negatives, even in 2022, and I’m looking forward to the Twitter experience during the World Cup. Will there be moments when I’m pilloried globally for having a soccer opinion just because I’m an American? Of course. But there will also be all the good things that I mention above, and Twitter continues making the giant world of soccer smaller and more manageable.
I guess the biggest difference about Twitter these days for me is that it’s also the main source of promotion for my livelihood, which is to say GrantWahl.com. I’m thankful for that, of course, and I’m also a little angsty about what Elon Musk might do to endanger that in the changes he makes to Twitter. Right now, Twitter is free. Might I have to start paying to tweet at some point? Or pay to receive the service or certain forms of it? Might you?
But when it comes down to it, as erratic as Musk can be at times, I don’t think he wants to spend $44 billion on something (even if only part of it is his money) just to see it go down in flames. I’m skeptical that he’ll be successful with Twitter, but my hope is the positive aspects continue to outweigh the negative.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
I have a question for you about your match viewing routines. I’ve heard you mention your favorite pub to watch matches in NYC, and it made me wonder: are there certain matches that you feel you can watch in a public environment, but others you feel you need to watch alone so that you can focus more (and have the ability to provide your thoughts and analysis on)? I find that when I watch matches with buddies or at a pub, I love the experience, but don’t get to pay quite as close of attention as when I watch solo. I hope to catch a match with you at a pub one day!
First off, I often watch games at Smithfield in New York City, so feel free to join me whenever. I almost never write on a game after I’ve watched it at the pub. There really isn’t the chance to watch the game as closely as I would like if I were to write on it. Which has led to occasional tweets like this one:
What is your ideal MLS playoff format?
I’ve always supported the Brian Straus proposal, which involved four-team groups, from which two teams would emerge and go on to some sort of elimination rounds after that. I actually like what it sounds like MLS is heading toward, given that there are certain things I know MLS won’t compromise on, like having too many teams make the playoffs.
My ultimate bucket list item is attending a World Cup abroad. Given your travels and passion for the game, which countries do you feel would make for the best once-in-a-lifetime all-around fan experience?
I’ve enjoyed every World Cup I’ve covered in a wide range of countries. The women’s World Cup has been lucky in the countries where that event has taken place, which generally are more appealing than the host countries for the men’s event. I’m excited about visiting New Zealand and Australia next summer. In terms of travel convenience, I tend to favor European countries with good train systems like Germany and France. I don’t like spending too much time in transit, because that takes you away from the games themselves.
In a fictional world where club teams and national teams could both compete in the same tournaments with their full rosters (i.e., Messi could play for PSG and Argentina at the same time, and imagine he is always fully fit for both) who would be the favorites to win that tournament? Would it be a national team like Brazil or a club like Man City?
The best club teams will always be better than the best national teams. Having the chemistry that comes with playing every day together at club level is a monumental bonus that supersedes raw talent. And the best club teams have insane amounts of money to be able to buy the best talent as well, regardless of national origin. One interesting question for me would be: How would the World Cup champion do if it played in the Champions League? Would it get to the elimination rounds of the last 16? I’m not so sure.
- Leeds continues on a path toward relegation between now and the start of the transfer window (with Jesse Marsch likely sacked)
- Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson continue to be two of Leeds’s best players
- They both show well at the World Cup
- Grant, should we anticipate a January Premier League transfer for either?
I’ve already seen one of those vague internet rumors about Man United being interested in Adams.
Given how young Aaronson and Adams are, and given how well they have played (both data-wise and on the eye test), I wouldn’t be that surprised to see bigger Premier League teams show interest in them. I’m beginning to think Marsch has enough support from his board to avoid being let go before the World Cup break, and that could give him time to start righting the ship. (To be honest, the underlying data for Leeds isn’t all that bad.) But it’s worth noting that Aaronson and Adams aren’t getting playing time just because they’re American. They’re getting playing time because they’ve been among the team’s top players.
Do you have any tips for how to watch soccer games? I've been trying to take in more of the field when I watch rather than just following the ball, but I find that if I stop concentrating on doing that I end up just following the ball again. Is that something that just comes with practice?
You can watch a game however you want, obviously. If I’m focusing on the ball a lot, I like to put myself in the mind of the player with the ball and actively think about the options that player has on where to pass the ball in that moment. But I’m also interested from the start of a game how high a team’s back line is; how much is a team pressing defensively in the opposing end; how is the team with the ball trying to attack what a team is giving it; is a team going with man- or zonal-marking defending set-pieces; how do teams make changes in response to game states. Stuff like that.
Assuming Vlatko coaches the USWNT through the World Cup, who might take over for him after that? Or is he likely to coach through the Olympic cycle with a decent (say semifinal) showing?
Hard to say. There’s so much pressure on a USWNT coach at a World Cup when it’s going to be disappointing to do anything but win it after triumphing in the last two. Andonovski is already behind it a little bit due to the less-than-ideal performance at the Olympics. And a part of me does wonder if there might be a desire in the U.S. Soccer leadership to have a woman be the coach of the USWNT again. I do wonder if the U.S. might consider Sarina Wiegman or Laura Harvey or Casey Stoney in the future.
As a supporter of an NWSL team whose season is over, I’ve started casting my mind toward the next NWSL draft. My questions for you: how important is the NWSL draft and why do some teams seem to use it more so much successfully than others? For example, Kansas City seems to have gotten a lot of value out of the 2021 and 2022 drafts (that Alex Loera was a fourth-round pick blows my mind), whereas several teams hardly gave any minutes to their rookies.
I still feel like the NWSL draft is an important bucket for providing players to rosters and should be taken extremely seriously as a result. Will elite players like Catarina Macario and Mia Fishel choose foreign teams and have control over their destinations that’s not given to anyone who opts to go in the NWSL draft? Sure. But there are still elite players available in the draft (see: Naomi Girma), and there are plenty of hidden gems that can become valuable players in the league. Kansas City has done a terrific job finding those players, and if you’re an NWSL team that doesn’t, you’re missing the boat.
Inspired by your interview with Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg about their “Messi vs Ronaldo” book—are there any topics for soccer books that you wish someone would write about (not something you’d like to write about yourself, but more something you’d like to read about that isn’t out there yet)?
I’d love to read more books truly covering the ins and outs of a team’s season, one that isn’t as polished (and subject to club approval) as one of those series we see on Amazon. (My book on the first two years of David Beckham’s LA Galaxy would be something like that.) I’d also love to read more books about the women’s game and how it’s growing globally. Those are a few ideas.
How are the Ukrainian professional soccer teams coping with the war in their homeland? Is the league still playing? Have they set up new training bases out of country? An interview with these team leaders would be insightful.
The Ukrainian league is playing. In fact, I’m planning to have a podcast interview coming up about that topic.
Have a good weekend!
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Interesting to read your take on Twitter. I can see why it's more positive than negative for you. I've turned off all social media (Twitter, FB, Insta, TikTok, etc) and that includes posting and reading/following/watching anything on those platforms. I find the negative to be WAY bigger than the positive for me. I much prefer to support you on your own site(via paid subscription) and come for thoughtful articles and discussion rather than the social media version of things. I like your articles in my email in-box rather than getting prompted about them via tweet. I will say that I miss the early days of Twitter and Facebook. Maybe those services will get back to something that has more positive than negative for me, But, I'm not counting on it.