On Monday, Paul Pogba had an opportunity to give Manchester United a perfect start to the new season of the Premier League, but the French international saw his penalty saved by Wolves keeper Rui Patrício.
The save ensured the match ended in a 1-1 stalemate, and prevented the Reds from joining Liverpool and Arsenal on six points at the top of the standings.
What followed was a tirade of racist abuse directed at Pogba on the social media platform Twitter, making him the third player within a week to be subjected to racist tweets.
Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham, who missed his side’s final penalty in the Uefa Super Cup shoot-out against Liverpool, and EFL Championship side Reading’s Yakou Méïté were also targeted by racists on Twitter after missing penalties.
The three incidents once again highlight the continued existence of racial abuse that has plagued the beautiful game worldwide for many years.
What makes this situation different is the increasing use of social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, to spew the vitriol.
Social media has taken cases of racism and other abuse from the stands to the public sphere, where millions can see messages. It also affords fans the opportunity to address players, clubs, officials and fans of opposing teams directly.
Former Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger warned against the rise of social media several years ago.
“It might be one of the problems that football has to face in the coming years. You see it in many countries now more and more. With social networks, everybody is allowed opinions and can strengthen that opinion with other people who have the same opinion. Before, your opinion was a bit more isolated. Today, straight away, it becomes a stream of people who think the same way and they become a force,” Wenger said.
His views are shared by Italian football writer Max Mauro, whose book, The Balotelli Generation: Issues of Inclusion and Belonging in Italian Football and Society, looks at the increasing number of players with a migration background in Italian football.
“Social media affords football fans – though I hesitate to use that word for people who are racially, or otherwise, abusive – the anonymity behind which they can hide their feelings. And social media then gives them the opportunity to find others who share their racist, homophobic or otherwise objectionable views,” said Mauro.
“However, anonymity is not the main problem on social media – effective monitoring and prompt action by social media companies is.”
It is, of course, not only the players who have been targeted. At times, the roles have been reversed and several players have been punished for posting unacceptable tweets.
Ghana international Emmanuel Frimpong was fined after he responded to a Tottenham fan who had tweeted: “I prayed you break your arms and legs.”
The Arsenal midfielder tweeted back: “Scum Yid.”
The latest incident involving Pogba caused a huge debate around racism and social media, with former United player Phil Neville, who now manages the England women’s side, calling on footballers to boycott social media, saying it would send a powerful message.
Pogba’s team-mate, defender Harry Maguire, said that anybody who attacked a United player was attacking the whole team, adding that social media companies needed to “stop these pathetic trolls”.
United’s other designated penalty shooter, Marcus Rashford, who could be seen briefly discussing the penalty with Pogba before the Frenchman took it, said “enough now, this needs to stop”.
Twitter, meanwhile, said that it wants to hold a meeting with United and Kick It Out, football’s equality and inclusion organisation.
“We have always maintained an open and healthy dialogue with our partners in this space, but we know we need to do more to protect our users. Racist behaviour has no place on our platform and we strongly condemn it,” the social networking service said.