Following his departure from Liverpool Georginio Wijnaldum explained that he came to categorise its fans into two groups.
“The fans in the stadium and the fans on social media were two different kinds,” he told the Guardian newspaper.
“The fans in the stadium always supported me. Even when they came back [after the Covid suspension of play], already knowing that I was going to leave, they still supported me and, in the end, they gave me a great farewell.
“On social media, if we lost, I was the one who got the blame. There was a moment when I was like: ‘Wow. If they only knew what I was doing to stay fit and play every game.’”
The concept of the fanbase being divided into ever-present ultras and armchair critics is nothing new.
Nor is the idea that those who go week-in-week-out are somehow more loyal and supportive of the players.
What has changed is that the second group has suddenly got access to the players.
Previously, the armchair fan’s voice extended to a radio phone-in or internet message board, their views never made it to the stadium let alone the player’s heads.
But social media fan opinions rain in on the players directly through their phone screens, day and night, in public and private.
These supporters’ opinions easily drown the views of the season ticket holder, who only gets one opportunity once a fortnight to shout their feelings in the direction of a player in the hope it might be heard.
Inevitably, this power is also being abused.
Access to elite soccer players from, often anonymous people, around the world is constantly used in the worst ways.
Players like Marcus Rashford are consistently targeted with racist messages after games for both Manchester United and England.
After the club’s Europa League Final defeat in May, he tweeted: “At least 70 racial slurs on my social accounts counted so far. For those working to make me feel any worse than I already do, good luck trying.”
So bad is the problem that in April, English soccer’s governing bodies organised a social media boycott “in response to the ongoing and sustained discriminatory abuse received online.”
It was embraced by the full plethora of English soccer clubs from Manchester United to Maidstone United.
According to the boycott’s organisers, this was just the start of a major effort to get the companies who control these platforms to sort things out.
“We will not stop challenging social media companies and want to see significant improvements in their policies and processes to tackle online discriminatory abuse on their platforms,” Premier League
Masters’ admirable rhetoric is somewhat undermined by the Premier League clubs’ unadulterated embrace of the platforms commercially.
Open any of the largest Premier League club’s annual reports and you’ll find social media is an important part of the strategy.
It makes sense, as sponsorship revenue is outstripping the traditional broadcast income English soccer clubs need as many marketing platforms as they can get.
Social media is a crucial way for them to sell access to their fanbase and, in online marketing terms, the online follower is as valuable as the season-ticket holding fan.
Not only that, most of the big players see these online international supporters as the future.
From Liverpool and Manchester United’s ‘Project Big Picture’ plan to reform English soccer to the European Super League the emphasis is always on the new global markets, which are yet to be fully exploited.
The so-called “legacy fans” remain a very small part of any balance sheet projections.
And.. the players?
As ever, no one has considered what all this means for the players.
On the one hand, a fan can reach into their home and speak to them like never before, on the other they are even more disconnected from the majority of those whose club they represent.
When the feedback online varies to what they experience in person, as Wijnaldum perceived it did, that can be difficult to process.
Especially when you consider the scales may be tilted. People say things online they wouldn’t do in person and social media platforms have been shown time and again to elevate the most extreme opinions.
The online criticism Wijnaldum faced had an impact, his differentiation of the social media and stadium fan is evidence of that.
He is unlikely to be the last player to have to develop such a system for handling the two groups because the social media fans aren’t going away.
And the clubs don’t want them to.
Wijnaldum’s comments only came once he’d made the move to Paris Saint Germain, you have to wonder whether he’d risk making them if he was still playing for Liverpool.