Anthony Martial's Manchester United squad number dispute demonstrates why footballers still need clearer social media guidance

 
Ehsen Shah
Leicester City v Manchester United - Premier League
No9 no more: Martial has been stripped of the iconic squad number (Source: Getty)

Athletes making headlines via social media has become something of a regular occurrence these days.

Recently Anthony Martial found himself the subject of countless articles and Tweets after unfollowing the official Manchester United account on Twitter in apparent protest at being stripped of the No9 shirt — handed to new arrival Zlatan Ibrahimovic — and given No11 instead.

With 8.3m obsessive supporters following United on Twitter and 606,000 eagle-eyed fans following Martial, a seemingly innocuous move was never going to go unnoticed.

The Martial saga went beyond a simple social media mishap, and demonstrated yet again that the football industry hasn’t yet fully grasped the digital space. In my work I have come across many similar examples, which do not make the national media, which have caused damage to an individual’s career. Barcelona have even gone so far as to cancel a transfer following a social media audit. These audits of social media clout and digital presence are now implemented into playing and commercial contracts with players.

Read more: This is Pogboom - How the Paul Pogba brand will help United pay back a world record £100m fee

Modern football poses great opportunities and risks for young footballers that are lucky enough to have a ‘brand’ on and off the pitch. On this occasion it proved to be a risk for 20-year old Manchester United and French star Anthony Martial.

Martial over the course of his debut season at Manchester United began developing his ‘AM9’ brand. The brand has been designed and trademarked by Martial, so when the club announced new signing Ibrahimovic with the number 9 shirt you can understand Martial’s frustration.


Martial had incorporated the No9 into his own personal brand (Source: instagram.com/martial_9)

What he did next was probably exactly what you’d expect when you upset a millennial 20 year-old footballer in such a way: he unfollowed the club on social media and plastered his social media accounts with photos of himself in his number nine shirt and promoting his ‘AM9’ brand.

Exactly what he shouldn’t have done.

At The Integrity Club we dealt with this particular scenario with a client recently. Our approach was to liaise with the club and discuss the reasons behind the decision and the best next steps to ensure the player and club were kept happy and protected.

Football is an emotional game, and it takes the people around you to help manage the emotions. As a management team we cannot directly impact a player’s performance on the pitch, however, we can do our utmost to provide the best off-field performances. To achieve this we provide our players with a support and education structure for them to handle emotional situations such as Martial’s.

Players need to be educated on the benefits and pitfalls of social media. Whether it be commercial benefits or brand damaging behaviour, we implement a process with all of our clients to ensure when an emotional situation like this, a bad performance or a dispute with a club or sponsor occurs, a process is there that acts as an insurance policy where the player is protected from themselves.

In fact we have a number of clients with trademarked brands, all of which do not include a squad number. Squad numbers can change at any time, whether you like it or not. It’s out of your control and in the club’s hands.

When building a brand identity, we look to build it on the characteristics of the individual.

Unless you are an established athlete and hold the power to change a club’s squad number structure — Cristiano Ronaldo, aka ‘CR7’ being a good example — we would always advise to stay away from numbers when brand building.

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