We need to listen.
After all we’ve seen, heard, and learned during this daunting global pandemic – teams expressing the significance of taking a knee, managers and players sharing their mental health struggles, referees shedding light on the threats against their lives and that of their family, footballers opening up about loneliness, social issues, and being more empowered to have a voice – you’d think we’d know that we need to listen.
Pause. No fast-forwarding to conclusions. Drop the defences. Kill the desire to know more, to know better. Just listen.
On Saturday, Gini Wijnaldum’s account of feeling unloved and unwanted by Liverpool’s ownership group and the multitudes of the club’s “supporters” that abused him across social media was published.
The midfielder, now at Paris Saint-Germain, conveyed how the online toxicity affected him and fed into the atmosphere – largely shaped by a contract offer that did not match his crucial service in terms of length nor pay – that he’d overstayed his welcome at Anfield.
“There was some moments when I didn’t feel love and appreciated there,” Wijnaldum said. “Not by my teammates, not by the people at Melwood. I know they all loved me and I loved them. It was not from that side, more from the other side.
“I have to say also there was social media. When it went bad, I was the player who they blamed.”
At no point did Wijnaldum say this abuse was the reason he left Liverpool. He was compelled to highlight that it played on his mind, had stretched into discussions with friends and family, and had a detrimental effect on him personally during his last two seasons at the club.
He wanted to talk about the hatred that engulfs social platforms because we should not shrug and accept it. That no amount of money or status can shield you from a torrent of being told you’re s*** – and that’s the nice bit – on repeat.
Naturally, the reaction to Wijnaldum flagging social media abuse was for him to… be abused on social media.
Despite not once referencing the online poison as core to his exit from Liverpool as a free agent, it has been positioned as his excuse for departing.
We beg footballers to swerve the cliches and to give us an authentic window into the people they are.
Wijnaldum told us how he felt and we told him he’s wrong. We took his words and twisted them as his defence for leaving to earn the money he deserves at PSG, on a contract that offers him and his family security for the next three years.
The 30-year-old doesn’t need justification. He joined Liverpool for £25m in the summer of 2016, was repurposed into a disciplined No 8 that was integral to the club becoming champions of England, Europe and the world.
Wijnaldum made 237 appearances, operating at centre-back or false nine if needed, playing on when he had diarrhoea or knocks, and was a stabilising force during the injury crisis and chaos last season.
Jurgen Klopp and his teammates trusted and adored him. The ownership group and recruitment team did not want to over commit to an ageing player as they guard against the squad getting stale together.
Wijnaldum did not believe the proposal on the table reflected his role in Liverpool’s transformation, how much the club depended on him, nor what he can contribute in the coming years.
Both parties have the right to their chosen stance and can count the past five years as a supremely beneficial experience.
Liverpool didn’t match Wijnaldum’s value, Barcelona dithered heavily on finalising a deal as they tried to mix their financial muddle, and Mauricio Pochettino, who attempted to sign the player from Newcastle before he moved to Anfield, finally got his man.
The whole picture has been painted solely around money, which hasn’t been helped by La Liga’s giants briefing as such to detract from their shambolic situation.
The financial side of things has been instructive as with any career decision, but over the past two years, Wijnaldum watched many around him – even injured or on the fringe – receive improved terms. He saw new recruits added to Liverpool on bigger salaries. The Netherlands international got the impression the club filed him as easily upgradeable and he was fielding a stream of messages online telling him he wasn’t good enough.
Getting a good contract at PSG doesn’t invalidate any of that. The desperation to frame Wijnaldum’s recollection of his match-winning cameo in the barely believable comeback against Barcelona as disrespectful to Klopp and Pep Lijnders is simply a disguised decoy for the abuse.
Wijnaldum’s crucial double against Barca came from the midfielder ignoring tactical instructions
“Angry Gini” has been a joke at the club since the immediate aftermath of that game and on its one-year anniversary, the staff and players watched the match together virtually, sharing minute-by-minute commentary on their WhatsApp group.
Wijnaldum’s fury and flipping of the finger to the tactical instructions was still drawing laughs and appreciation. Klopp and Lijnders are advocates of giving players a framework, but trusting them to still solve on-pitch situations by intuition: “a plan with imagination,” per the assistant manager.
The backroom staff know the abuse their players field. Klopp has long detailed how changing the psychology of the squad and drowning out external noises was his biggest challenge at Liverpool.
“I came in and all the questions were straight away ‘who will you sign?’ And ‘who will you sign?’ is only because people think with these players you can’t win nothing,” he says in the book Believe Us.
“But I signed the contract because I thought, ‘oh, that’s a good team. Not a perfect one obviously, but it’s a really good team with talent, with character that needs direction.
“As soon as I came in, I realised nobody is happy with the team. And I realised the team is not happy with the team. That is a big, big problem and I thought, ‘OK this needs a proper restart.’
“The players were obviously listening to all the voices saying they are not good enough for the club or that I can’t wait to get rid of them. There were a lot of insecure players. I think, especially in England, everybody is used to the first thing a manager does to save his own life is to sack whoever he can.
“I needed the time to convince the boys about their own qualities and thankfully I was given the time and look at them now: champions of Europe, England and the world.”
Wijnaldum was a pivotal part of those successes. Instead of telling him to “man up” in prettier ways and ultimately accusing him of greed, respect his contributions and his feelings.
Do not shame the victim. Shame the abusers on social media.