Exclusive: Thierry Henry applauds Southgate’s social media blackout plan – and hails sponsors backing

Thierry Henry has described Gareth Southgate’s plan to discuss a Twitter and Instagram blackout for the European Championships with his England players as “amazing” and revealed that his sponsors have supported his own decision to quit social media.

Arsenal legend Henry has stressed that it is not just the abuse that footballers have received that prompted his decision to shut down all of his social media last week, admitting that, like thousands of parents, he is “scared” of the effect it could have on his own children.

Henry, who will only return to social media, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, if changes are made to protect people from racism, abuse and bullying, has received the backing of his sponsors, along with England manager Southgate, Wales captain Gareth Bale and Arsenal, who have launched their own ‘Stop Online Abuse’ campaign.

  • Players must join Thierry Henry boycott to prove appetite for real change

Southgate responded by saying he will let his England squad decide whether or not they will shut down their social media accounts during the Euros to avoid negativity or abuse.

“It’s an amazing idea,” said Henry. “Because it creates tension for no reason. I remember the World Cup in 1998 with France, we didn’t have any newspapers or media, none, anywhere around the place. Now there is social media, which Gareth Southgate said can bring negativity into the camp.”

One of the potential issues for the England team or high-profile sports stars, who may want to follow Henry’s lead, is the reaction of their sponsors.

Henry insisted that he realises different people face different pressures and that he does not expect “the world” to quit social media, but he hopes that sponsors would give their clients the same support he has received from the likes of Puma, Heineken and Renault.

“I don’t know if people or players are scared because some people earn a living through those platforms and I totally understand that,” said Henry. “My sponsors backed me up, which is for me very important that people know. Sponsors have to back you up, they must back you up if you want change. Out of courtesy, I told them what I would be doing because enough is enough. 

“I didn’t do this hoping the social media platforms would contact me or that people would do this or that. But when I saw what Gareth Southgate said, I was like ‘wow, thank you’. Gareth Bale ‘wow, thank you’. Arsenal too.”

Over the course of the past year, England players Marcus Rashford and Reece James have been among the many footballers racially abused on social media, while Mason Mount and Harry Maguire have been victims of online trolls.

Henry cannot only relate to the problems social media can create from the perspective of a player but also as a coach, having been an assistant to Belgium manager Roberto Martinez at the 2018 World Cup and managed Monaco and, most recently, Montreal Impact in the MLS.

“One thing you see now is the first thing players do when they go back in the dressing-room, they go on social media,” said Henry. “They are not happy to see what they see sometimes, but it is still the first thing they will do. So the sheer pressure of that constant battle of ‘I need to be on it, I don’t want to look but I look. I’m going to get abused and I know it will have an impact on me, but I need to look’. It starts to dictate everything you do every day. 

“When a player goes into the dressing room, he searches for ‘what did they say, what did that pundit say, what did the manager say, what are the fans saying?’ Then what do you do? You try to please whoever is talking about you instead of speaking to your team-mates or your coach about the game.”

Henry is not upset by the fact that nobody from any of the big social media companies have made direct contact with him yet.

What he wants to see is change and not just for the sake of footballers, but for everybody who has suffered racism, abuse or bullying on social media and for parents, like himself, worried about what their children could be exposed to.

“My daughter’s still on social media and, yes, I’m scared,” said Henry. “It’s private, but you don’t know the impact it can have of what’s being said on there. 

“And there is the sheer pressure to be on it for young people. It’s like you are not cool if you are not and all parents will know that. Their kids will say ‘everybody is on it, why are you not letting me on it. I won’t be cool at school’ and so on and so on. It is a great tool, but can it be safe?

“If you are young and you try to go to a nightclub, you can say whatever you like to the guy on the door, but usually you will have to show ID and show what your age is. Otherwise you can’t go in, there are rules.

“So why can’t it be the same on social media, why don’t people have to give their national insurance number or some form of identification, so we know who people are and there is accountability?

“We have a situation where Wilfried Zaha can be abused by a 12-year-old and say he is scared to look at his comments. I know you can say he can turn off his comments or not look at his social media, but you wouldn’t tell somebody not to walk in the street because of what they might hear. You don’t want people abusing you, your friends or your family.”

Rather than reading statements, Henry wants to know exactly what the social media companies will do to make their platforms safer and he still believes there is more that can be done in the wider fight against racism.

“At what point are the platforms going to come out and tell us what they are trying to do or what they are planning?” said Henry. “Come out and talk about what you are trying to achieve.

“Wilfried Zaha decided nothing has changed, so he is going to stand instead of taking the knee. That is his decision and I respect it. But at one point I felt like the discussion became about kneeling or standing, which is not the point. We need to go to the cause of why Wilfried is standing or why somebody else is kneeling. Why are we not going back to the cause and what should be done or not, and why we want action?”

On the subject of whether or not footballers should walk off the pitch if they suffer racist abuse, Henry added: “Who has the power to stop a game on the day? The referee. So why, when there is a player who is getting abused, is there not a rule saying the referee can stop the game? Why does it always have to be a question to the black player, ‘would you walk out?’ The responsibility should not be with the player.”

Henry has promised that he will return to social media once he believes it has been made a safer environment. And challenged on whether or not he is prepared to stay off Twitter, Instagram and Facebook if nothing changes, he was unequivocal with his reply.

“Yes,” said Henry. “It (racism) used to happen to me on the field, it used to happen to me on the streets, it happened on social media. I didn’t report it on social media because I knew I wouldn’t get any answers. I’ve had enough of talking, I’m looking for consequences.”

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