IN A BANQUETING room in a Mexico City hotel shortly before Diego Maradona destroyed another England World Cup campaign in 1986, a gathering of sportswriters were invited to remember how glorious their lives had once been. Donald Saunders, the retiring football correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, spoke fondly of the days before the new-fangled curse of floodlights. He evoked a time when Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror covered fights in America by travelling first class in an ocean liner, then Pullman from New York to Los Angeles. But for the football writer, floodlights had changed everything. Floodlights meant night football and hard deadlines, compounded by perversely late kick-off times. "This was a wonderful job when you could watch the game, make your notes, return to your hotel room and write and telephone your match report - then go to dinner with the manager," said Saunders, whose frequently expressed irritation at the course of modern life and communications had long earned him the affectionate nickname Saunders of the Liver.
TODAY'S FOOTBALL writers are inevitably much more sanguine about journeying along the information highway, most of them growing into the job when computers had long been standard issue and making a phone call from, say, Sofia to London had ceased to be an erratically bestowed miracle. German efficiency is promising an extra bonus in the World Cup which starts on Friday. The thrilling word is that every press box will provide internet facilities, including filing blessedly free from the fear of telephonic breakdown.
THIS SURELY REPRESENTS full circle from some of the experiences of Malcolm Brodie of the Belfast Telegraph, the doyen of all World Cup writers. Brodie hasn't missed a World Cup since Switzerland in 1954, an extraordinary achievement which was recognised by football's governing body Fifa when it handed out long service trophies to veterans. The qualifying mark was nine World Cups. Brodie, at 79, will be setting up his headquarters in Frankfurt with customary vigour this week for his 14th tournament - one more than his nearest rivals, Brian Glanville of The Sunday Times and David Miller of The Daily Telegraph. All three sailed beyond that operational dividing line recalled so nostalgically by Saunders for various reasons, not least amazing energy. It has also helped that they are superb journalists with a passion and deep knowledge of football.
GLANVILLE, LIKE Miller a brilliant ad-libber, was the wonder of the press box in those perilous days when a line to London was a precious gift. Classically, he was paged in a bar somewhere deep in Central Europe, and was heard to utter the awe-inspiring line, "What, 1,400 words in half an hour? Put me on to copy ..." He had a staggering technique. He scrawled vertical and horizontal lines, often on the back of an envelope, and then ticked off the boxes, one tick for every word. The result was invariably flawless and biting. Ad-libbing was the great trick back in those days before advanced technology. It could be demanding but it had one great advantage. It permitted you to see most of the action, rather than today's hurried glance from over the laptop screen. But then you were also at the mercy of the telephone line - and irreverent copy-takers. Malcolm Brodie had brushes with both. Filing from Moscow after a brave but unavailing effort by the Northern Ireland team against the old USSR Brodie's line disappeared, never to be recovered, after just one sentence, which said, "They died with their boots on." On another occasion, uplifted by Northern Ireland's three-goal performance against Spain, he dictated his intro with great gusto "... Olé ... Olé ... Olé," only to be told by the copy-taker, "For Christ's sake, Malcolm, I heard you the first time."
MY OWN HISTORY of filing from the World Cup has not been without mishap. My first tournament was in England in 1966. After that, Spain in 1982, and every one since. From Barcelona in 1982 I filed by fax what I thought was an especially poignant and no doubt unforgettable account of Brazil's defeat by Italy to my then employer, the Vancouver Sun, and was much saddened to learn that it eventually turned up in the office of a brewery in Ontario. This was especially disappointing because a few days earlier I had, as someone based in north America and thus at the cutting edge of technology, proudly displayed to some old Fleet Street mates my miraculous computer. It was slightly smaller than a suitcase, and it blew up the following day. Four years later, in Leon in Mexico, the same thing happened during a freak electrical storm, and another piece disappeared into the ether. Mexico was also memorable for the sight of a mountain road being washed away before my eyes. In Los Angeles in 1994, World Cup coverage was complicated by the fact that the O J Simpson murder story broke just a mile or so from my Santa Monica hotel - and on the day I arrived. In 1998 in Marseille rioting England fans obligingly did some of their worst work beneath the balcony of my hotel room. Tear gas filled the hotel and several news reporters ransacked my mini-bar. However, the computer worked beautifully.
SUCH FRUSTRATIONS are not unknown in the relatively modern era. In the Seoul Olympics of 1988 the old Tandy computers were equipped with a gadget resembling today's chip and pin apparatus. If your card showed sufficient credit your report would go through. This provoked an unofficial Olympic event known as Throwing the Tandy. It was at this event that Roy Collins, now football correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, earned his nickname Dr Tandy. For years he was the last hope of distraught sports writers trying to nurse their machines back to life. On one occasion, he was awakened by a desperate colleague. Collins, who normally loved such a challenge, was quickly discouraged. The machine was lifeless. Then he turned it over and saw a jumble of wires. Yes, his colleague admitted, he had thrown at his bedroom wall. Such horrors were no doubt beyond the imagination of Saunders of the Liver and certainly the prospect of them seem remote in 21st-century Germany. This, anyway, is the solemn hope of all those who aspire to membership of the Brodie Gang.
Matthew Norman is away