GENEVA: In this file photo taken on Sept 20, 2019, Team Europe's Roger Federer (left) and teammate Rafael Nadal watch a match as part of the 2019 Laver Cup tennis tournament in Geneva. - AFP

PARIS: Across social media, sports stars denied the chance to play in front of a crowd are increasingly going "live" in sometimes surprising ways to connect with an audience. To the delight of fans, happy to discover some hidden facets of their idols, stars from Karim Benzema to the Brazilian legend Ronaldo and even Rafael Nadal, who initially struggled with Instagram, are dropping their habitual discretion to interact live with their millions of followers.

"As competitions are suspended, sportsmen and women are no longer necessarily supervised by the club's press officer," Boris Helleu, an expert on digital strategies in sport, told AFP. "The athlete becomes his own media and can speak out on subjects that we didn't hear about before."

One of those who has cracked open his armour on a range of topics is the normally prickly Benzema, who posts videos on YouTube as "Nueve Live" -- a play on his shirt number, and has more than 33 million Instagram followers. His broadcasts have attracted as many as 130,000 viewers live with hundreds of thousands more catching up later.

The tone is relaxed and humourous, but the French striker has also been mildly controversial, taking sides in French rap politics and also airing his grudge over being banned from the French team. Asked about Olivier Giroud, who played centre forward when France won the World Cup two years ago, Benzema replied: "Everyone knows the difference between F1 and karting, and I'm F1."

Benzema also builds his audience by chatting with the type of celebrities who appeal to a young Francophone audience, but when it comes to star guests, no one tops Ronaldo. Ronaldo, the president of Valladolid in La Liga, has interviewed FIFA president Gianni Infantino and also talked to fellow Real Madrid Galacticos David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Iker Casillas and Luis Figo.

Switching from Portuguese to English, Spanish and Italian, the Brazilian double Ballon d'Or winner chatted matily with former team-mates as if in a private phone call with an old friend, even though tens of thousands of people were watching. When his turn came, Beckham said he had watched the earlier chats and thought "Figo talked too much". Ronaldo responded by defending the Portuguese winger with a series of wife jokes.

Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic, sharp and articulate in English, has worked his way through the upper echelons of men's tennis in a series of live chats which have moved beyond good-natured banter into the politics and economics of the sport.

Nadal caused great amusement as he struggled with the technology in a three-way Instagram chat with Roger Federer and Andy Murray. "As you can see I am a disaster," he said at one point. A star aiming for a young audience, Antoine Griezmann of Barcelona, opted for gaming platform Twitch when, along with brother Theo, he hosted a live online combat session.

Contestants included fellow members of the France World Cup team Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele as well as the best known French online combat gamers. In 24 hours shooting virtual guns, they raised 29,200 euros ($31,600) for the Red Cross. In a medium where he can set the agenda, Benzema, a polarising player, has revealed a "frankness" that seemed both natural and confusing.
Helleu said the Real Madrid striker was using the medium well.

"The mistake would be to consider that he's a loose cannon, when he's not," Helleu said. "On the contrary, the difficulty of the exercise is to be authentic and not a glass of tepid water. And that, for the moment, he does it well," said Helleu, a professor of sports management at the University of Caen. "Many footballers aim to counter the erroneous image of the guy who's just good at kicking a ball, by showing that they have a personality, a sense of humour and an opinion," he added.

The athletes with their social media are exploiting a void caused by the cancellation of live sport normally shown by television rights holders and are attracting a young audience. "Before, the sportsman's voice only existed and was only possible through the traditional press. Now that's no longer the case," says Helleu. "Once the competition is back on track, it will be interesting to see if Benzema says: 'We had a good time, I'm keeping this going.'" His followers can't wait for that. - AFP