Don't @ Me: What's It Like to Be Mistaken for a Famous Footballer on Twitter?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 31, 2019

Twitter

A sudden increase in the number of French-language messages that Ashley Van Buren was receiving on her social media accounts could mean only one thing: Andre Villas-Boas had got a new job.

"I've been getting tagged in a few more lately, for sure," Van Buren told Bleacher Report. "At least one a day. I don't speak French, so I have no idea what they mean."

As the owner of the Twitter username @avb since January 2008, Van Buren has become intimately acquainted with the career of the man known by those three initials. From the vitriol mistakenly fired her way when Villas-Boas' Chelsea tenure hit the skids early in 2012 to the more hopeful messages she has been receiving in the wake of his recent appointment by French giants Marseille, the New Yorker has been a steadfast—if unwitting—witness to the highs and lows of his 10-year coaching career.

And she is not alone. Be it Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad, the 59-year-old IT consultant from New Delhi who owns the handle @rvp, or Brent Langford, a 31-year-old driving-school owner from California who tweets at @brentford, Twitter is dotted with individuals whose success in securing their desired username had the unexpected consequence of consigning them to an existence of football tweetstorms, random notification spikes and gratuitous abuse from complete strangers.

Langford has been known as "Brentford" (a portmanteau of his first and second names) since high school. He could not have known when he set up his Twitter account in March 2009 that it would oblige him to spend his days patiently explaining to British football fans that he was not a second-tier football club from the west London suburbs.

Despite a clear warning in his Twitter bio ("Contrary to popular belief, I'm not a football club in the UK"), Langford estimates that he gets mistakenly mentioned in football tweets roughly once or twice a week. He was once even tagged in a tweet by the very football club with which he is routinely confused.

"I honestly know nothing about soccer," he said. "I just know when I start getting more [tweets] multiple times a day, there must be some sort of big thing going on. Recently, it's been about a player switch. Somebody was leaving, or we got somebody. I don't know."

Patryk Garkun picked the Twitter username @psg because it matches his initials. He has turned off notifications for any accounts he does not follow, such is the huge volume of tweets sent in his direction by people talking about Paris Saint-Germain.

The 37-year-old, who lives on the outskirts of Munich, changed his notification settings after the tweets became an "annoyance," but he said some of his interactions have revealed a more tender side to football.

"A kid's mum DM'd me once and asked if I could please let her son join 'my' youth team," he said. "I felt bad having to inform her that I have nothing to do with the club."

The @PSG handle is owned by a guy in Germany, not the football club
The @PSG handle is owned by a guy in Germany, not the football clubGEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/Getty Images

Although Langford has encountered some hostility from football fans on Twitter—mainly, he said, from people telling him to "eff off and pick a new name"—he described the overall experience as "mostly positive." But for any accidental football doppelgangers who momentarily find themselves in the Twitter crosshairs, the experience can be extremely unpleasant.

Prasad has been known as "RVP" to his friends and colleagues since well before Robin van Persie came along, but the Dutch striker's emergence as one of the biggest stars in the Premier League would have dramatic consequences for his Indian namesake.

When Van Persie left Arsenal for Manchester United in a seismic August 2012 transfer, Prasad started to receive thousands of tweets per day, many of which he said were "very abusive."

"I do most of my work on social media—it's how I reach out to my clients—so I couldn't turn my mentions off," he explained.

"I had two secretaries full-time just to go through the tweets and delete or block the people who were mistaking me for Robin van Persie. And they were young girls, both around 21 years old and fresh out of university. They were quite upset about it, having to read those abusive tweets. They came from conservative backgrounds. It upset them quite a bit."

Sarah Moyes, an animal rights campaigner from the Scottish town of Falkirk, inadvertently walked into a similarly toxic Twitter storm in 2014. After her @moyesy account was repeatedly tagged by people angrily complaining about David Moyes, she posted a tweet stating that she was of no relation to the failing Manchester United manager and asking Twitter users to leave her in peace. After being retweeted by Gary Lineker, among others, the tweet went viral. And the abuse became shockingly personal.

"There were people telling me I should kill myself," Moyes told Bleacher Report. "There were really horrendous things, and it was very upsetting. The fortunate thing was that it wasn't ongoing. It lasted a couple of weeks and then it died down. But it was very hard to read those messages and just feel like you couldn't escape from it.

"You can be the most confident person in the world, but you've got all these hundreds of messages coming through telling you ugly how you are or how you shouldn't be living. It definitely has an effect on your mental health."

Moyes, 32, blocked the accounts that sent the vilest messages, and the torrent of tweets eventually abated. But on a night out in Glasgow a few months later, she was taunted by a stranger who freely admitted to having sent her abusive tweets. It was a brutal, unforeseen shattering of the online realm's fourth wall, and Moyes was only able to regain her composure after the man's apologetic friends ushered him away.

"That was the only time that happened," she said. "But he'd said things, had no regrets, was quite happy to come up to a young girl in the pub and be like that. You don't know what could have happened if you'd run into this person on the street by yourself."

Van Buren, a writer, editor and video producer, was so disturbed by some of the death threats destined for Villas-Boas and his family she received that she reported the matter to Chelsea. While the 37-year-old knew the abuse was not being aimed specifically at her, the daily cycle of hateful messages took a toll.

"It's a lot to mentally handle when you know it's not you, but also it sounds like it's meant for you," she said.

When Villas-Boas' subsequent spell at Tottenham Hotspur also went sour, Van Buren decided to subvert the abuse she was sent by irate Spurs supporters by responding to their tweets with musical theatre lyrics. It won her the approval of Twitter and made headlines around the world, but also—crucially—gave her ownership of the situation.

"I think because I approached it in a way that people found funny, I took any sort of spotlight off myself and put it more on the situation, which allowed me to have more control over the narrative," she said.

Van Buren, Prasad and Chelsea La Salle, who tweets at @chelsea, all showed support for Moyes when she came under attack in 2014. They have collectively formed an unofficial support network for each other—and anybody else who has the misfortune of being mistaken for a famous person on Twitter.

"We reach out to each other and support each other," Prasad said. "All the people who are mistaken for sportspeople and other celebrities, we all tweet each other regularly."

The consequences of being mistaken for a high-profile football player or club on Twitter are not all negative. Prasad admits he has "dined out" on his internet fame, while Moyes (whose brother, coincidentally, is named David) has fond memories of the supportive messages that have been sent to her and some of the "very surreal" media coverage she has received.

Van Buren is frequently touched when people who started following her on Twitter due to her association with Villas-Boas show support when she tweets about issues close to her heart such as gender equality or abortion rights.

"It keeps me in check for stereotyping football fans," she said.

Garkun would "gladly" sell his @psg handle to PSG if they made him a decent offer. But the others reject the suggestion that they could make life easier for themselves by changing their usernames, arguing that they have just as much of a right to go by their initials or nickname on social media as any celebrity.

In committing themselves to their usernames, they know a degree of vigilance will always be required. Because if your social media experience stands to be affected by the real-world escapades of a well-known football figure or club, it helps to know how they are getting on.

"There's a little bit of an affinity," Van Buren said. "You feel a little bit bad [when they receive abuse]. And you celebrate their victories. When he gets traded, I'll give it a Google and see what he's up to."

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