World Cup: Spare me a winner in the last minute...
... says The Independent's football editor Glenn Moore. But apart from that, the World Cup just ended set standards for media organisation that matched those on the pitch
Monday 10 July 2006
So what do you do? Really? Can I carry your bag next time you go to Stamford Bridge/ Old Trafford/Anfield?
I know, I know, best job in the world and all that. Which is true, apart from the pay, and the weekends, and the evenings and ... OK, I'll stop. For one month every four years being a football reporter really is "the best job in the world".
All that loitering in car parks waiting for a monosyllabic quote; travelling back in the small hours after watching a goalless draw; sucking up to agents and PR people. It's all forgotten when the World Cup comes around.
Weltmeister2006 should have rekindled any jaded reporter's palate - unless he was covering England, of which more later. The tournament - which concluded in Berlin last night - featured some excellent football, played out against the backdrop of a nation joyously rediscovering itself. Many German stereotypes were confounded but, fortunately for us journalists, one largely held true. The efficiency of the media organisation was important because - sadly but inevitably - the quality of service we receive can shape one's perception of a competition as much as the skills of Zinedine Zidane or Francesco Totti.
The World Cup is an enormous media operation. Thousands of seats were set aside (the big banks of blue desks you may have noticed spanning the halfway line) which means very good vantage points. They were also free for print media, though Fifa, the organizing body, did their best to claw back the lost admission money by levying some hefty charges for telephone and internet access. Most newspaper groups are now picking up tabs that run to thousands of pounds. Offsetting that, sponsors Deustche Bahn provided us with free first-class rail travel. The good publicity DB received probably justified their generosity.
The German team had some of the most organized media provision. Their daily press conferences, in a huge congress hall, began at 12.30pm precisely to coincide with live television coverage. So dedicated was their press office that when a fight broke out between German and Argentinian players their chief media honcho was in the thick of it - as might be expected of a former hack.
The Brazilians' pre-tournament build-up was in a tiny Swiss village. Within days it was a mini Rio de Janeiro, not because there were scantily clad lovelies cavorting on a beach, but because cars were double-parked and treble-parked all over town.
The French, meanwhile, pretended that no other language existed. Players who speak perfectly good English while playing in the Premiership, like Chelsea's William Gallas, suddenly forgot every word.
Not that we English can feel superior. While German-speaking Togo provided translation into French and English, our Football Association, despite spending thousands on their media facilities, conducted everything in the language of Shakespeare and Beckham (it is the same language, just used differently). By way of consolation, foreign reporters visiting England's camp could follow the cricket matches against Sri Lanka and read English papers.
Having covered the England beat for their previous five major tournaments I know it is the best and worst of postings. On the credit side England are the No.1 subject of debate in every bar and office back home. There is the knowledge that people will actually be reading your work, instead of just the hope that they are. On the debit ledger, England have become a three-ring circus, with the same few players being asked the same few questions, usually based on a tabloid agenda. England's habit of basing themselves in isolation - this time Baden-Baden in the far south-west corner of Germany - means you may as well be watching the World Cup at home on television.
This time I was deployed elsewhere. One lesson learned from previous World Cups was the value of having a base to save lugging a month's baggage across Germany from game to game - as most of the electronic media, and some of our rivals had to. The news reporter had the plum posting. He lived out of a campervan. It was a state-of-the-art specimen, with sat-nav etc, and we allowed him to book a hotel when he ventured into cities for England games.
In the past the news man has had an unenviable task, ducking the bottles and evading both police and hooligans as England supporters rioted. This time there was little trouble and he was able to write about the Fan Fests and the impact of the tournament on Germany.
Once the tournament starts it develops a momentum of its own. For the first 19 days there were at least three matches a day to be covered. The big teams needed to be featured in depth with visits to training grounds to take the pulse. These were usually a devil to get to but great for colour when you did.
Less bucolic were the press centres, which we saw a lot of since tickets have to collected two hours before kick-off. After a match there was a press conference for the managers and sponsors' man of the match (this World Cup had a big corporate imprint), and a separate "mixed zone" through which all players had to exit.
The press conference was a civilised affair but the mixed zone was a scrum, especially when teams like England and Brazil were involved. Hundreds of journalists clamour - in temperatures touching 100F - for a brief word, ideally in their own language, with the players, half of whom have lost and are in no mood to talk to anyone. It is a demeaning and flawed system, but no one has yet found a better way to feed the quote-hungry multi-headed media beast.
As for the matches themselves, they were a bittersweet privilege. I was very fortunate to see some outstanding games. However, much of any match is spent bowed over the laptop, writing. Deadlines mean the whole match report must be written by the final whistle and then rewritten with quotes. Decisive late goals are not welcome, and extra-time and penalties something of a nightmare.
Which is one reason why, instead of being in the Olympic Stadium last night, I was sitting in front of the television at home with a cold beer in hand hoping for a classic. I wouldn't be able to say, "I was there", but I would be free to enjoy an injury-time winner.
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