How YouTube changed football: the seismic shift of a global phenomenon

In only a decade, the video-sharing service has turned supporters into experts, players into memes and tricksters into stars. FFT investigates why...

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

Ronaldinho was a fraud.

Nike’s 2005 advert for their Tiempo Legend boots, during which the nonchalant Brazil star repeatedly pings a football back off the crossbar from 20 yards without it touching terra firma, had become the biggest video on YouTube. Yet here was a Nike spokesman admitting, “The shots against the crossbar have been reworked and refined on the computer.” Supposedly two of Ronny’s four strikes did hit the bar (which you’d think would be enough), but it didn’t matter. The video was fake.

Nike had accomplished their mission, however. Boy, had they. While the footage was a world away from today’s polished, sculpted ads – it was filmed in real time, ended abruptly and had no soundtrack beyond the ball tapping against boots and thunking against woodwork – it was the first YouTube video of any kind to reach one million views.

And this was only YouTube’s beta site. Indeed, it took a good three weeks for Ronaldinho and Nike’s combined trickery to rack up a million clicks; by way of contrast, last year’s trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens amassed 112 million views in its first 24 hours. An advert for a football boot had shown what this new, obscure website could achieve.

A few weeks after Nike’s ‘Touch of Gold’ video had hit seven figures, and 11 years ago this month, YouTube was officially launched, before being bought by Google in 2006. The internet wouldn’t be the same again… and neither would football.

Slow start

Even the use of licensed match footage wasn’t considered a threat, despite the revolutionary accessibility of YouTube’s free streaming service

Nobody in football took YouTube seriously in its early days, and it’s easy to see why. Just as YouTube itself had, like Facebook, begun life as a ‘hot or not’ rating/dating site – because everything on the internet eventually comes back to sex – the first football videos being shared were too trivial to upset the sport’s movers and shakers.

Even the use of licensed match footage wasn’t considered a threat, despite the revolutionary accessibility of YouTube’s free streaming service in a world where videos were expensive to host, hard to find and risky to download.

Chad Hurley, Steve Chen

Chad Hurley and Steve Chen founded Youtube in 2005

The most popular early football videos included the four-second ‘Neil Lennon heinously headbutts Alan Shearer’s foot’ and the four-minute ‘The ultimate Zidane HeadButt video’. The latter was uploaded just a few days after Zinedine Zidane nutted Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, compiling 42 comedy GIFs that mashed up Zidane’s Glasgow kiss with Pokemon, Street Fighter and even MC Hammer. It wasn’t that original, most of the clips having been liberated from an online community called YTMND (‘You’re The Man Now, Dog’), yet it drew millions of views.

Still, the whole world had already seen Zidane and Materazzi’s special moment; a comic mash-up going viral wouldn’t change much. This was nothing like the cataclysmic effect that YouTube had on the career of Tom Cruise, whose reputation never recovered from online memes mocking his infamous couch jump on Oprah not long after the site’s launch, nor the career of Howard Dean, whose widely-shared yelp in an Iowa caucus speech – ‘The Dean Scream’ – turned him from democratic presidential candidate to an international laughing stock. Football fans were yet to harness YouTube’s potential, while the sport’s higher-ups just didn’t really care.

Highlight packages

Highlight reels, usually accompanied by either DMX or some ear-assaulting Europop, showed them the best of what they could expect to see from an exotic new signing

YouTube was, though, instilling football supporters with an intangible power of sorts. With match action being shared by like-minded people across every continent, showing everything from

the season review of a club in the English third tier to Jonathan Blondel’s highlights package, fans became more well-informed. Highlight reels, usually accompanied by either DMX or some ear-assaulting Europop, showed them the best of what they could expect to see from an exotic new signing.

Users created ‘welcome’ videos, even if they didn’t support the club that was doing the welcoming. In the summer of 2006, when YouTube was still in its infancy, Carlos Tevez joined West Ham from Corinthians and a clip reel that same day drew more than 100,000 views; the account’s only other video garnered 68. Portsmouth fans had to settle for a slideshow of incoming pretty boy Niko Kranjcar, which ticked a different set of boxes entirely.

Niko Kranjcar

Niko Kranjcar: not worthy of proper clips, apparently

This knowledge was superficial, of course. If it’s true that in 2017 we’re living in a ‘post-fact society’, then football fans on YouTube were years ahead of their time. Any player could be and still is reduced to clips of regal brilliance or rank incompetence, made to suit a narrative. The truth is what you and YouTube want it to be. And for the ever-growing proportion of supporters who enjoy discussing football more than watching it, the proliferation of condensed match highlights provides bitesize chunks for easy digestion.

Still, the professionals wouldn’t get involved with all this nonsense. Or at least, they shouldn’t have done.