The cultish lure of the modern day superstar

Words by Emmet Gates
September 3, 2018

“Messi no.1!” the young Chinese boy shouted exuberantly at me. The youngster, whose English name is Miles, is five years-old and proudly points to the back of his Barcelona shirt with Messi’s name and number sprawled across it. Seeing a Chinese person of any age wearing a football shirt, whilst increasing slowly, is rare in Beijing. It’s even more of a rarity for kids of Miles’ age. Football still has a long way to go before it supplants basketball as the most popular sport.

Intrigued, I ask if he’s a fan of Barcelona, pointing towards the crest. Miles looks down, gives it some consideration, before replying, “no, just Messi,” and wonders off with his friends.

Messi, and of course Cristiano Ronaldo (because you can never mention one without the other), are marketing behemoths in Asia. Their fan base far outstrips any western athlete (with the possible exception of Michael Jordan) and indeed any western club. You can find their highly valuable faces on just about any product in the country.

In a country that thrives at individual sports (a cursory glance at their summer Olympic record shows their most successful sport is Diving) and until very recently enforced the infamous one child policy for the vast majority of the country, Miles’ admission failed to surprise. If one spends any amount of time in China, you realise, rather quickly, that it’s the nation of the individual.

To the older, long-serving football fan, the mere notion of following a single player as opposed to a club is an alien concept, an anathema to tradition. Historically, with clubs being rooted in the local community, support of the club came above all else. Even when a favourite player is shifted on, justified or not, love for the club remains resolute. How many times has the ‘no player is more important than the club’ mantra been chanted through the ages?

Despite the disgruntlement of large swathes of fans about how modern clubs are run in the upper echelons of the game, the way in which executives and shareholders have turned them into corporate entities, fans still uphold that basic principle. While many could argue that it’s turned into a cliché, a marketing tagline to be used and abused by the PR end of most clubs, for the majority, it rings true: the club comes before all-else.

However, it’s a model of fandom that is slowly losing its imagination with the Generation Z football fan. Never more was this apparent than in the summer’s biggest transfer: Ronaldo joining Juventus.

In the wake of signing the world’s most marketable player, Juve gained an additional 4.7 million followers across various social media platforms in the two weeks following his move across southern Europe, particularly on Instagram, with Juve’s official account rising by some 25%. A month later, that figure rose to over 6 million. Real, in contrast, lost a million Twitter followers inside 24 hours of the deal being announced.

Hatem Ben Arfa’s mistake in joining PSG

Videos and posts could be seen on Twitter of fans openly switching allegiances, like flicking a switch, with many opting to follow Ronaldo rather than remain a fan of Real. One video especially sticks out in the memory, of a Real fan taking off their Los Blancos shirt to reveal a Juventus shirt underneath before signing off with ‘oops’.

The video could’ve been made in jest, sure, however it speaks to a wider issue: the cult of the modern day superstar. Through the use of social media, football fans, especially young, impressionable ones, feel a closeness, or connection, to their favourite players in a way that was never possible before. Accessibility has become key in this social media-led era. By casting a glimpse into the private lives of players, fans become connected to them, rather than to whom they play for.

Ronaldo is perhaps the perfect illustration of this cult. Only days after being presented as a Juventus player in Turin, and whilst his new team left for a pre-season tour of America, Ronaldo flew 8,000 kilometers to Beijing on a ‘CR7’ tour, his second annual jaunt to China to essentially promote brand Ronaldo.

Thousands of eager Chinese fans queued (an etiquette the Chinese won’t be winning any gold medals for) before a specially constructed stage for Ronaldo to make an appearance. Images could be seen of him juggling with a football in front of the Forbidden City and posing for pictures with Chinese fans.

Such an individual ‘tour’ would’ve been unimaginable a decade ago. Yet, as football becomes more globalised, with the Internet making accessibility to videos of superstars no more than 3 clicks away. An entire day could be spent stuck down a YouTube rabbit-hole gaping at compilation videos. Young fans from far-flung corners of the world are more than likely able to identify with a Ronaldo or Messi before they would a Barcelona or Juventus. Ronaldo has more Twitter followers than Juventus and Real Madrid, combined. Messi outnumbers his club on the same platform by some 39 million. Extraordinary numbers.

It’s not just the fans’ perception of individuality that’s changed, the finger can be pointed at the players they idiolise too – the Ballon d’Or, for instance, now exists alongside the Champions League or World Cup as a genuine objective. Clauses are written into contracts stipulating that players receive bonuses for winning the Ballon d’Or. It’s believed that Neymar’s rationale for leaving Barcelona for PSG was due to the belief that there would be a substantially better chance of winning the award if operating in a team that didn’t include a certain Argentine genius.

COPA90 recently published a study concerning habits of the Gen Z football fan, in which they found that 46% of 16-24 year olds in the UK support at least two teams, 27% support 3 or more, and 41% of 16-19 year olds supporting a team from La Liga. This provides further evidence that young fans are drifting further away from the one-team concept, and will venture further out of their country of origin in an attempt to find a team to rally behind.

Football fandom is no longer bound by geography, which in itself is hardly news, yet the ever-increasing trend of supporting a single player over a club carries with it its own peculiarities. When said player eventually retires, where does the loyalty of their followers lie? Are they immediately transferred to another player?

As Messi’s career twists and turns towards the final stretch, what’s next for Miles? Will he finally choose a club to embrace, or simply transfer his adulation to another player?

What are you looking for?