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The Birsa Effect


The advent of social media has introduced a whole new battery of casualties. There are psychological injuries to everyday users, but have you ever considered the power of your words as they influence others? Not just other fans online, but the players themselves? This year in particular, I’ve noticed a trend that plagues Twitter and other online forums like a disease. A trend where words become more powerful than reality. I like to call it the Birsa Effect.

Social media has a lot to say about all of these guys, but how much is true?


The name comes from one of social media’s biggest casualties, Milan’s own Valter Birsa. Brought in as part of a swap this summer at the age of 27, he was never destined to be a Ballon d’Or winner, although playing next to one does not exactly help his cause. Before he ever played a match for Milan, I wrote about his career to date, saying that he had flown “under the radar.” I also defended him ad nauseum on one of the podcasts, as the effects of social media had already set in.

Since that time, Birsa’s role as a ‘squad player’ stepped up exponentially as he’s made 12 starts and 3 substitutions with 2 goals and an assist in all competitions. His assist came in the Champions League match away to Celtic, in which 2 of Milan’s three goals started from Birsa corners. In fact, when he is on the pitch, he is the default corner taker, as that seems to be a specialty of his. But more importantly, both of his Serie A goals came in games where his were the only goals, meaning he personally is responsible for 6 points in the league. That’s 6 of Milan’s paltry 19 points from a measly ‘squad player.’ Not Muntari, one of the preferred starters of Allegri’s Milan, but a Slovenian ‘squad player.’

Muntari is a starter, apparently for both his goals and his liabilities?

Not only has Birsa been crucial in Milan’s stats this season so far, he played a very important role in covering for some very important injuries. And despite being out injured now for about 3 weeks himself, his numbers are still better than a lot of players that Twitter users deem “worthy of Milan.” So if you are rational, look at the numbers, or read this blog, then you probably have a healthy respect and/or appreciation for Milan’s number 14, Valter Birsa.

But social media can influence even the most discerning and respectable fans. I know it affects me. For the longest time, I would write my match reviews having not been on Twitter since before kickoff. Then I would go to Twitter and be surprised at how a few people’s comments would have snowballed and influenced opinion (which you can actually watch as you read through a timeline.) More recently, as I have sometimes kept up with Twitter during a match, I see how some people’s comments affect my perception of a player or an event during the game, etc. Sometimes it’s for the good, especially if someone posts an astute observation, but more often, it’s for the worse, as people calling our players names or wishing them ill (like when they get injured) will change my mood entirely, and often what I write.

The guy bleeds for the shirt and gave Milan almost 1/3 of its points in the league to date

This absolutely seems to be the case with Birsa. He was maligned early on, at least on Twitter, and got a lot of hate. So much hate, in fact, that I’m told he doesn’t tweet anymore himself, although he used to. And putting in perfect corners to give Milan two goals from corners in a single game for the first time in a long time (even Galliani noticed this) wasn’t enough to change the perception forged by social media. People on Twitter don’t care that his goals are responsible for nearly 1/3 of Milan’s current points on the table after nearly half a season. They don’t care that if he hadn’t played while El Shaarawy was out, we would have been stuck with players and/or formations that would have been even worse, and would have been in the relegation zone without his goals against Sampdoria and Udinese.

It’s interesting to note the difference between Nocerino’s welcome to Milan just after a Scudetto winning season. Many did not feel he was worthy of Milan, and he cost us a mere €500.000 in transfers. Whether it was luck or a fluke or whatever, he ended up with 48 appearances, 11 goals, and 3 assists that season. Playing alongside plenty of players deemed worthy of the Milan jersey, he helped us to a 2nd place finish. His numbers and performances have dropped off significantly since, as have Milan’s fortunes. He, too, now is demonized on Twitter and elsewhere as not worthy of the Milan jersey. In fact, recently, Andrea Poli said that none of the current Milan squad would have been starters in Milan’s glory days.

Nocerino had the fortune to play with "Milan worthy" players in a winning season

So why Birsa? My theory is that it is misplaced anger. It’s not Birsa’s fault that he is a squad player at Milan. He has done everything in his career to develop his talents, and this is as good as it gets for him. But he has been able to make solid contributions at Milan this season and to fill in when necessary. He has done everything he has been asked, and maybe a little more, to be honest. He has a fantastic attitude and work ethic, gets along with everyone in the squad, and puts the t-e-a-m in Milan this season.

But fans on Twitter and elsewhere think he’s not worthy of the Milan jersey. Their hatred is misplaced. Because it’s not him who signed a player of his caliber to Milan. He did not call himself up for those 15 appearances. Their anger is misplaced. The fans on Twitter try to hate Valter Birsa, because they are really mad at management for lying about the commitment to youth and bringing in players of Birsa’s caliber instead of players like Pirlo or Nesta or Pippo or Gattuso. And aren’t we all?

At least management didn't spend €11m on Birsa.

It actually has nothing to do with Birsa, or anything he has done at Milan. They are not mad at a player who has done everything he was asked and became integral to the squad while doing it. They are mad at the club. At Milan’s position on the table. At all of the events that led us to needing to rely on a player like Valter Birsa instead of a player who cost so much more and was paid so much more and maybe would actually be considered someday for the Ballon d’Or. It’s the Birsa Effect.

While it is easy to rely on social media for news and opinions, don’t ever lose yourself in it. It’s too simple to get caught up in the hysteria and lose sight of reality. Birsa is, in fact, a blessing to Milan this year, even if he’s not a starter even during these meager times. Particularly considering that we traded him for Antonini, and lost TraorĂ© in the process, too. We probably all have anger toward Milan’s situation, and at various people who got us to this point. But let’s not misdirect it at those who have helped us most. If everyone uses the brains they were given to be able to discern between reality and opinion, we can avoid getting caught up in The Birsa Effect.


This post inspired by the music of The Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again”