They could no longer put up with the insults and violence being directed at them.
These two events struck a chord with the Uruguayan midfielder Mathías Cardacio. This player, who began his career at Nacional and was signed at the age of 19 by AC Milan, felt that something was not right in the relationship between players and fans on social media.
“I suddenly began to notice that the aggressiveness was deliberate and gratuitous. Social media had turned into a free-for-all," Cardacio said in an interview with FIFPRO
"People thought they could get away with anything. They said all kinds of things to you and hid behind false photos and names, with complete impunity. That was when I began to realize we were getting into a problem that would end up destroying us if we didn’t say something about it."
Cardacio, 32, now playing for Defensor Sporting, belongs to a generation that has experienced top-flight football both with and without social media. He emphasizes how easy football was when “it started and ended with the match”.
"Before the emergence of social media, football felt healthier to me, more real. People talked a lot more about football and hardly anything was said about what happened off the pitch. Nowadays you can be insulted or discriminated against for some other reason that has nothing to do with the game. And what’s more, it happens 24 hours a day. If you’re hooked to your phone you spend all day seeing strangers attacking you and your family”, he explained.
Indeed, FIFPRO has become aware of the high levels of violence, hate speech and discrimination against footballers on social media and in February it issued a statement urging public institutions to implement effective protection for players from attacks of this kind. It also called for a boycott, along with various football-related organizations, to persuade social media to tighten up their measures against online insults and discrimination.
Rodríguez’s and Ocampo’s withdrawal from social media led Cardacio to change his own pattern of use. So during 2020 he decided to publish posts on Twitter more related to his life with his partner and his three-year-old daughter Catalina than to what happened on the field.
“I realized that every time my team lost I felt really bad. But I was more upset by what I saw on social media than by the match itself. So I preferred to give more prominence to my family”, he reflected.
“Nowadays if you make a big mistake in a first-division match, by the next day you’ve already been turned into a meme which is spreading all round the world”— by Mathías Cardacio
Cardacio did not just apply this new approach in his own mind; he also made use of it to turn it into into advice for younger players: “the youngest lads in the squad spend all day with their phones. And I have seen how they suffer from these criticisms they receive. For some of them it directly affects how they play. They take fewer risks for fear of making a mistake. Because nowadays, if you make a big mistake in a first-division match, by the next day you’ve already been turned into a meme and that video is spreading all round the world.”
Moreover, Cardacio was concerned to note the prime importance that public opinion on social media had acquired within football institutions themselves, even to the point of threatening players’ job security: "In the last few years I began to notice that this thing with social media was even affecting club managements. There were directors who decided not to renew players’ contracts or to sell them according to what was being said about them on social media”, he claimed.
However, the breaking point for Cardacio came in February this year when the Peñarol player Denis Olivera suffered an avalanche of racist insults because of his skin colour after his team lost a classic against their great rival, Nacional.
That event, added to the suicide of the player Santiago “Morro” García due to depression, made Cardacio decide to go public and become the great figurehead of Uruguayan football in demanding an end to insults on social media.
“I got in touch with Maximiliano Patri, the head of digital content at Peñarol, and between us we came up with a video so that all of us, the players from every club in Uruguay, could make an appeal together”, said Cardacio. “Do you do everything right?” and “Do you always get the results you’re looking for?” are the first two questions asked in the video by players from the two major divisions of Uruguayan football.
This video, entitled “Bajemos la pelota” (“Let’s bring the ball down”) made such an impact that a few days later another similar video appeared, but this time the appeal came from the great Uruguayan stars in Europe, including Luis Suárez, Fernando Muslera and Edinson Cavani.
The campaign was promoted and supported by the Uruguayan players’ union, the Mutual Uruguaya de Futbolistas Profesionales, which also gives talks on behaviour and risks of violence on social networks. “If just one out of every ten people who have seen it reconsiders, it’s already been a triumph”, Cardacio pointed out.
He warned that although things have been calmer in the last few months in terms of criticisms and insults, families are still suffering too much of it.
“People have to understand that we are just like labourers, office workers, taxi drivers or bakers. It’s just that we work on a football pitch and are cursed with the fact that everyone analyses our work. My mother’s spoiling for a fight; she’s become an anonymous user to argue with people on social media.”