Liverpool Fans Turned Transfer Sleuths: How to Track a New Signing's AirplaneAugust 9, 2018
When reports of Alisson Becker's rumoured move from AS Roma to Liverpool reached a fever pitch in July, many questions stirred online among Reds supporters. However, the goalkeeper's skill set, statistics and transfer fee (a then-world record for the position) all took a back seat to uncovering a more pressing piece of information.
Where was the Brazilian located?
With every passing second the question was left unanswered, fans felt a key summer objective slipping away. They turned to social media, where even superstar athletes often share details of their globetrotting adventures.
There, they found a clue. Alisson had posted on Instagram only a few days prior: "Curtindo a Sardenha," ("enjoying Sardinia") read the caption to a radiant family photo.
The tip was enough to set off an avalanche of digital investigation.
In the past, Liverpool fans have successfully traced the arriving airplanes of new signings. From Mohamed Salah to Jurgen Klopp, such tracking has allowed the Anfield faithful to virtually watch the club's new additions touch down in their new football home.
They have also overridden transfer hype before, tracking planes in the past they thought were carrying the likes of Nabil Fekir or Thomas Lemar, who ended up not signing for the club. This time, they were determined to turn rumours of Alisson's arrival into hard evidence.
The Mediterranean island of Sardinia sits more than 100 miles off the coast of Italy and, according to FlightRadar24.com, has four airports to its name. Fans such as Elli Lechtman, a South African Liverpool supporter, quickly dialed in the Italian coastline on FlightRadar.
"I personally feel this is directly related to the old stories we used to read on Twitter or football forums about people speaking to baggage-handlers at airports who would supposedly have seen a player arriving or departing for a possible transfer," he told Bleacher Report.
After first logging in to FlightRadar24, the webpage looks something like a map of the Earth that accidentally had yellow, airplane-shaped confetti spilled on top of it. But the yellow, blinking icons mark real planes, and fans desperately wanted to know which one might be carrying their new goalkeeper.
After Loris Karius' jaw-dropping errors in the UEFA Champions League final in May, Liverpool's goalkeeping situation was always going to be a hot topic for the summer. When Brazil were knocked out of the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals, rumors that Liverpool were interested in signing Alisson started to firm up. Reds supporters were ready.
After Italian media began reporting a deal had been struck between Roma and Liverpool, fans began sifting through flights in real time.
Planes were leaving Sardinia in all directions at the time. Fans began to flag any flight heading in even the general direction of British airspace before learning the man himself had already returned to Rome for the final preparations of his move to Liverpool.
By filtering FlightRadar24's tracking display down to only planes that left Roman runways, the confetti-strewn globe transformed into something more manageable.
However, if the vague travel reports of the deal were meant to be believed, so was the €72.5 million (£65.3 million) fee, which decreased the likelihood that the most expensive goalkeeper in the history of the game would be making his trip via a commercial airliner.
Tracking charter flights requires more ingenuity than for a commercial airliner as private planes often lack call signs linked to public scheduling databases. However, they still emit the proper radio signal that FlightRadar receivers use to produce the real-time position and flight information tracked on their website.
"I would look for any chartered flights from Rome and would try to follow its path," Lechtman, who runs a popular Liverpool fans' Twitter account explained. "Some would have Rome to Manchester denoted on the graphics available, but in most cases, you'd just track the plane out of Italian airspace and see where it was headed."
As the seconds continued to pass by, fans on Twitter and Reddit flooded (social media links may contain profanity) timelines with posts of flights leaving Rome with scheduled arrivals at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport, nearby Manchester Airport or simply any private charter inching along in the direction of north-west England.
"Oh yeah," Ian Petchenik of FlightRadar24 interjects before B/R can finishing asking if he is aware of how Liverpool fans use the website. "They're very passionate."
One of the first examples of such passion came in October 2015. Then, around 35,000 supporters watched an Embraer Legacy jet fly from Dortmund to Liverpool. Fans had figured out the plane was carrying their new manager, Klopp.
Once the flight had been identified, the link to watch the plane's descent spread through social media and was tagged to any Klopp-related news. The tracking allowed any fan with an internet connection to join in on their new manager's arrival and take part in a hobby few fans knew even existed.
As the website traced the flight into Liverpool, a path shaped like the number "5" was sketched into the radar, which some fans took as their new manager reminding the open skies of the club's five previous European Cup victories.
A "match thread" for the anticipated arrival popped up on Reddit, complete with a live feed of journalist reports, talking points and weather conditions for the German's arrival in Liverpool.
"I know it sounds silly, but I genuinely remember that day well," Mo, a Reddit user from Jordan, recalls. Having just finished a master's degree, he was unemployed the day of Klopp's arrival, and once he saw comments about planes being tracked, he started what would become one of LiverpoolFC's most well-known Reddit posts and a foundation for the football transfer plane-tracking trend.
"I think part of the reason that we've had so much intrigue in flight tracking, compared to others, is because there was a tangible and very positive outcome from our first usage of it when things had looked very bleak," a moderator of the Liverpool FC subreddit under the username Oxfordsandtea, says.
"Before, it appeared to be very dark days [at the club]. Our squad was, by and large, pretty average and, for a lot of supporters, it felt like we'd gone one step forward, and one or two steps back."
Before the start of the 2017-18 season, it had been a Mercedes van that stole the show. It was spotted on runways at John Lennon Airport just days before the summer transfer window was due to close.
The silver van, innocuously parked on the tarmac next to the wing of a small, white aircraft, looked familiar to some fans. A similar vehicle was traced back to the arrivals of Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson, and as far back as Mario Balotelli's arrival in 2014.
In photos and the club's own welcome videos, the players could be seen stepping off a near-identical van and on to club property ahead their contract signings.
Fans thought they had scooped inside info on a deadline-day deal for Virgil van Dijk. Liverpool had spent the summer linked with the Dutch defender, even after Southampton filed an official complaint against the club during the Reds' early pursuit of the player.
A last-minute transfer seemed to be romantically written in the stars, while the van itself was hailed as a saviour. Identified by its license plate KS15 YXM, the Mercedes vehicle was cast on to banners and honored alongside club legends.
Liverpool would go on to announce a deadline-day transfer, but not as "Vanfield" supporters had predicted. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's arrival to close the window came with no van or airplane sightings linked to his trail. Van Dijk would arrive in the January transfer window. However, the Mercedes van remains part of the fans' sleuthing network (and meme library).
Tracking the arrival of a transfer target at a club provides an eye-catching saga and has now developed as something of a tradition online.
Supporters of rival clubs have also taken part in their own tracking journeys, with 32,000 Arsenal supporters watching Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's flight from Dortmund to London in January. Recent Gunners signing Lucas Torreira was even asked about his flight during his first interview with the club's official website.
When asked who the normal visitors to FlightRadar24's website are, Petchenik describes the primary users as "aviation nerds"—people who simply enjoy the planes themselves. A Chicago native, he doesn't follow much Premier League football, but he is surprisingly fluent on the topic of Liverpool fans and Klopp's tenure (he credits his European colleagues for filling him in, as the website is officially based in Stockholm, Sweden). He strikes a sense of pride knowing his love for aviation can better help football fans enjoy their own passion.
During the home stretch of the Alisson tracking, fans resolved that after landing at Manchester Airport, there was a chance a club vehicle might be supplied for the final leg of the journey into Liverpool.
Redditors provided links to public motorway cameras in the hope of catching their hero, KS15 YXM, in action. A few hours later, a blurry snapshot of a silver vehicle darting along an empty stretch of road sprung to the front page. Users serenaded the discovery, while the final reports from more traditional sources also confirmed Alisson's arrival.
"Pretty sure that's a grey Ford Focus," one user noted in the celebration. Nevertheless, the new signing was announced the following day, having made it to the club—one way or another.