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'We live in a world where there are a lot of sad and angry people' - The challenges of being a female pundit

Irish footballer Chloe Mustaki on the Karen Carney controversy and her own experiences in punditry.

RTÉ Soccer pundit Chloe Mustaki (file pic).
RTÉ Soccer pundit Chloe Mustaki (file pic).
Image: RTÉ Screengrab

ON NEW YEAR’S Day, it was confirmed that football pundit and ex-England international Karen Carney had deleted her Twitter account.

The move came following a controversy in which Leeds United used their official Twitter account to mock an opinion offered by Carney in her role as a commentator for Amazon Prime.

Carney suggested Leeds had been promoted to the Premier League last season “because of Covid,” referencing their tendency to run out of steam in previous campaigns and suggesting the enforced break owing to the pandemic had benefited the Yorkshire club.

Predictably, a wave of online vitriol was then directed at Carney, to the point that she no longer felt comfortable remaining active on the site.

While Leeds condemned the abuse, they stopped short of apologising for their specific tweet, despite many critics accusing the club of orchestrating the mob by highlighting and ridiculing Carney’s comments.

Club owner Andrea Radrizzani defended their right to criticise the remarks, saying: “I take the responsibility of the club tweet. I consider that comment completely unnecessary and disrespectful to our club and particularly to the fantastic hard work of our players and coaches.”

Nonetheless, the fact that Carney won 144 England caps and played at World Cups and the Olympic Games during her career, making her more qualified than most to comment on the sport, did not seem to matter to the online trolls.

Leeds’ tweet has not been deleted at the time of writing, though Carney has received some high-profile support, while the Premier League club have themselves been subjected to significant criticism for their handling of the saga.

Women in Football described the Elland Road outfit’s behaviour as “inciteful,” while former Leeds player Rio Ferdinand stated that the club should delete the tweet.

*****

One individual no stranger to the world of football punditry and its perils is Irish defender Chloe Mustaki.

The 25-year-old had enjoyed a hugely promising few months as a player towards the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. During that period, the former underage international had received her first call-up to the Irish senior squad by Vera Pauw and also signed for Charlton.

Yet during the national team’s final training session prior to their game with Greece last March, disaster struck. Mustaki ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament [ACL], an injury which she is still recovering from at present.

However, this misfortune did pave the way for Mustaki to begin a punditry career, which she viewed as a means of staying involved in the sport while she recovers from her latest setback. She has consequently been a regular ever since on RTÉ and elsewhere, commenting on women’s football and particularly the Irish team’s fortunes.

The defender has proved an engaging and intelligent screen presence in her new role, and it’s no surprise to hear her offer a nuanced view of the Carney debacle.

She does not believe the Leeds tweet in itself was sexist or intentionally malicious, but feels the club’s actions were still unjustifiable.

“My opinion would be that there was no need for Leeds to tweet that in the first place,” she tells The42. “I can understand why what she said would frustrate them. But as a professional organisation, they should know better. They should know the consequences of a tweet like that.

“Unfortunately, in our day and age, females are still trying to make their way into football, rugby and sports that over the past few decades have been classified as ‘male sports’. So I think it was just a bit lazy and stupid of their Twitter and their media to have done that.

“The consequences of putting up a tweet like that trump the benefit they would get. Especially with [the importance of] mental health and everything this year, I just think it was irresponsible of them.”

arsenal-v-tottenham-hotspur-fa-womens-super-league-meadow-park Football pundit Karen Carney felt the need to delete her Twitter account after receiving a barrage of online abuse. Source: PA

Mustaki adds: “I’ve found it hard getting some negative comments over the past year, but I can only imagine what [Karen Carney is] feeling like.

“For me, it’s just something I’ve taken on on the side while doing my rehab. But for her, it’s her job. She’s paid to give her opinion. She’s obviously done a lot of background work and she’s allowed to have an opinion. 

“In this case with Karen, people are so invested with their club. Obviously as well, this year, given Covid, people have nothing else to be doing unfortunately.

“And you’re on the spot. You’re asked to question [the action] live on TV. I’ve found it tough, I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m not sure even myself how I would manage that as a full-time career. You really have to build up quite a thick skin and obviously, if you’re passionate and knowledgeable about it, it’s worth it. But I do really feel for her.”

While it is true that every pundit, male or female, tends to receive abuse for controversial takes, there has long been suspicions that the latter group tend to be targeted or disproportionately impacted when they offer an opinion. There is concrete evidence supporting that view not specifically in the realm of football punditry but at a wider societal level. For instance, in 2016, when The Guardian commissioned research into the 70 million comments left on its site since 2006, they found that of the 10 most abused writers, eight were women, and the other two were black men.

Mustaki agrees with this sentiment: “Especially in football, rugby or sports that are played predominantly by males, we’re not there yet where females get the same level of respect as males.

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“It’s everyone’s responsibility in the sport to try to promote positive connotations towards females. 

“I do think females are going get that bit more lambasted than males, because there are still a lot of sexist people out there. Until that is rectified, it’s just something people need to be conscious of.” 

The former Shelbourne and DLR Waves player has herself found working as a pundit to be “challenging” so far.

“I’m nervous every single time I’ve done it and nervous throughout. I obviously know the [Irish] girls, which helps a lot, and I know the formations generally speaking from training under Vera and Eileen [Gleeson]. I know the way we play, but every game is different.” 

She admits not being able to “live and breathe football” the way some others might. And that’s understandable, particular when you consider that in addition to her football-related commitments, Mustaki also has a full-time job based in London, where she works for an executive search firm in the financial services.

“I’m mostly headhunting investment bankers over in the States,” she explains.

“I like having a broad experience in my daily life. Because I play football and I intend to play for many more years, being immersed in that sporting environment can get a bit suffocating. I guess if I was to work, other than play football, I can’t imagine that it would be in the punditry scene [long term], because I would like to keep my head in a different headspace.

“Basically, I want to keep my football and working career separate. But at some stage, they probably will overlap just because of the experience I have with football and sport in general. But for my own mental health and sanity, I think it’s good for me to have different outlets.”

chloe-mustaki Mustaki pictured playing for Ireland at the World University Games in 2019. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While Mustaki has never experienced abuse to the level that Carney has, one particular controversial comment did prompt a degree of ridicule.

“I just got some abuse after one of the Ireland games over something I had said relating around Covid.

“It just came out completely wrong and unfortunately, there were one or two individuals who tweeted about it. I shouldn’t have even gone looking [on Twitter], but obviously I did.

“I didn’t expect to see negative comments and that was the first time it happened. I was really upset about it. I put out a tweet just to explain myself, that my intentions were not poor and I wasn’t wishing Covid on anyone or anything like that. A lot of people backed me up and sent me really nice messages, which was great.

“When I was looking at the Karen Carney controversy, there were a lot of positive comments as well. I suppose in her case, there were more negative than positive ones. But I really did find that for about 24 hours, I was really upset.

“Yet at the end of the day, the people that care about you know the kind of person you are. I’m sure in Karen’s case, she just felt that leaving Twitter was the best thing for her mental health. And I totally respect that decision. Her backlash was on a completely different level to mine. It’s important that she just sticks to being around people who love her.

“Unfortunately, we live in a world where there are a lot of sad and angry people. We can’t control that. What I will say is it’s up to clubs and professionals to tread carefully in their actions, because by tweeting something like the Leeds account did, it unnecessarily brings on a lot of abuse. I’m sure even if Leeds hadn’t tweeted that, she would have got some abuse, but it just invites more.

“If you’re going to be a professional organisation, you just need to act carefully. Whatever about people who sit behind their phones and computers at home who are sad and angry for other reasons and who will point the finger and be mean, you’re just not going to be able to stop that.”

Mustaki continues: “One of the things my mum taught me growing up, if someone gets angry at you for something they shouldn’t have got angry at you for, it’s just because they’re going through something in their own life. Obviously, every situation is different, but it’s important to remember, if people do get angry or upset in a situation where they shouldn’t, it’s because they’re dealing with something in their life and always to be mindful of that.

“There’s just so much of that on social media and unfortunately, we can’t prevent it. We just need to minimise it as much as possible by not inciting abusive comments. Just leave those individuals to themselves.”

jessie-stapleton-with-jess-redfern Jessie Stapleton (left) recently highlighted sexist comments on a livestream of a recent FAI U17 League Final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

And on a related note, for all the progress made by women’s sport in recent years, there is still plenty of evidence that sexism remains rife. The disgraceful comments underneath the Women’s U17 league final livestream were one recent example, and funding is another issue. Mustaki’s outlook, though, is relatively optimistic.

“There’s definitely been a huge improvement and I can’t remember the last time someone made a negative comment towards me about the fact that I play football and it being a macho sport. I do remember growing up, having comments like that aimed at me, but I’m 25 now and I can’t remember [hearing them] in the last five years at least.” 

But as with the Carney incident among several others, it’s clear the trolls remain prevalent online and exactly how you go about clamping down on the issue is a question that’s not easy to answer.

“If they could find a way to do it without preventing free speech, that would be great. I just don’t know how they’re going to do it.

“I was just talking to an investment banker today about what happened in the States and the Irish CNN reporter Donie [O'Sullivan] talking about the effect that Trump has had on his supporters’ views on social media. How can you effect that? How can you clamp down on it? It’s so difficult to do that, without preventing free speech. So much good comes out of free speech on Twitter, but so much bad comes out of it too. It’s a really tricky situation and I don’t know how they’re going to handle it.

“Free speech is important, but mental health is becoming such a big problem in this day and age that you need to find a middle ground.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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