Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Paul Scholes recently made his debut as another Sky Sports pundit alongside the likes of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. The consensus was that Scholes did a great job, and much of the attention was on his remarks on Arsenal’s main problem as of late.

So then what are some of the qualities that make a great football pundit? Obviously some of it is going to be subjective, or influenced by your particular view of the person they were as a player (they’re invariably former footballers). Moreover, the standard prior to the “new school” was so risible that we might be tempted to over-praise an ‘average’ performance.

But watching Scholes speak, I think we can distil some basic qualities in a good player pundit:

1. Ability to explain tactical ideas in an accessible way

In explaining Arsenal’s problems, Scholes clearly and concisely explains his impression of Arsenal’s problem, which involves the failure of the midfield to track back and help in defense, particularly in difficult fixtures. He asserts that Arsenal rely too heavily on a single, one-size fits all style of play–short passing.

Whether or not this is accurate is up for debate, but in presenting his case Scholes neither reverts to jargon or cliche to make his point. It’s clear, convincing and easy to envision and understand.

2. Doesn’t overcompensate

Whereas most of the time it seems the biggest problem with ex-player pundits is that they under-prepare, others of the new school, perhaps in the understanding their every off the cuff word will be scrutinized by a horde of angry football supporters, work hard to give the illusion they know everything about everything all the time (“I remember watching him play for Red Star’s academy side, Gary”).

This expertism is toxic and ends up backfiring, as pundits make smug, absolute claims that will almost certainly be overturned by reality at some later stage. Note however that when Scholes is pressed on who is to blame for the current malaise at Arsenal, he backs away from the question, even daring to say the taboo phrase “I don’t know.” A willingness to not overstep your bounds means you’ll only be wrong some of the time, as opposed to most of the time.

3. Doesn’t resort to cliche

It’s clear toward the end of the above video that Gary Neville is dying to get in and cap off whatever he thinks Scholes is saying with a little speech on the lack of ‘characters’ at Arsenal. But if you listen carefully, Scholes has made a very simple argument about the need for midfielders to track back in big games, and how more versatile position players can help teach and develop younger stars like Jack Wilshere. That’s similar to Neville’s ‘character’ cliche, but he doesn’t take it as a self-explanatory position.

4. Applies playing experience in a way that’s helpful to the audience

Some player pundits, though thankfully fewer and fewer, resort to the “That’s the opinion of someone who’s never played the game” trope. Scholes however briefly refers to his time as perhaps one of the best playmaking mids in a generation to make a simple point about switching up your approach if it’s clear you’re being broadsided early on. It’s not done in a demonstrative way, but works very well in the context of his overall argument.

That’s just four. There are probably others I could expand on, but I think more and more the great pundit is the one that asks the right questions, rather than try to provide all the answers. Scholes’ comments are still resonating a day later.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates a goal against Real Madrid during La Liga's second 'Clasico' soccer match of the season in Madrid

Last night, many fans of the World’s Most Popular Football League tuned in, as they often do, to watch El Clasico on TV. The reason should be obvious: Real Madrid vs Barcelona features two of the best teams in the world with the best players in the world facing each other in a match that will play a hand in deciding the eventual league champions. This is about as straightforward as it gets in football terms. Viewers weren’t disappointed, either; the game finished 3-4 for Barcelona and was packed with lots of pretty attacking football from people paid a lot of money.

What I’m guessing probably didn’t happen much at all last night is English-speaking football fans chiding other English speaking football fans for watching a Spanish league match, perhaps saying something like: “You already have everything you could ever want in the Premier League. Why do you need to go off and watch their lot?”

The Daily Mail nevertheless took the rare instance of a foreign league attracting native UK eyes to reassert the Premier League’s dominance in the entertainment stakes, as if a single El Clasico is going to suddenly make a convert out of a regular Mail reader.

But it raises an interesting point: why do we persist with the idea that foreign domestic leagues are in competition with each other for a limited set of eyeballs?

Though I’m only armed with anecdotal evidence, I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that following football isn’t what it used to be. It once involved traveling to grounds, listening over the radio, reading match reports in the newspaper and perhaps waiting for that rare weekend when your team ended up on Match of the Day. This pretty much limited you to one club in a single league. Today however football is a giant, radiating glob, with every league selling viewing rights as part of an increasingly vicious bidding war on TV, and Vined and GIF’d and YouTube’d and Blogged up the wazoo on the Internet. You watch what’s on.

People have their personal preferences of course (“I love the attacking verve of the Eee Pee El”), but in practice they’re meaningless. Even bitter MLS fans follow the European leagues, if only to track American expats on their way to stardom or irrelevance across the pond. Regular viewers of the Premier League will keep tabs on the Bundesliga and will switch back and forth depending on how bored they are with Stoke vs Cardiff. “Switching leagues” is a simple as changing the channel. Everyone follows everything. You can’t really be a Premier League fan without knowing the basics of what’s happening in Germany, because the Champions League is just around the corner.

What galls most though about the repeated, chest thumping assertions of the Premier League’s international dominance since its inception in 1992 is that it likely came in large part from its being based in an English speaking country with English speaking media. No doubt the entertaining dominance of Man United and Arsenal surely helped, but built-in English commentary and English reporting provided less of an obstacle to the curious overseas fan.

But it doesn’t really matter now in the age of digital media, with Italy’s Gazetta Dello Sport and Spain’s Marca putting out English editions and more and more league highlights going up on Youtube. A rising tide lifts all boats: the enormous success of the Premier League’s global expansion has carried with it intense interest in the other leagues as well, most notably the polyglot Champions League, which itself is an advertisement for the weekend matches. Even the EPL’s advantage in the TV rights game could shrink as competition for even remotely popular leagues intensifies among cable TV providers scrambling for the remaining live sports properties. There’s no real “competition.” Fewer and fewer fans are going to watch Premier League mid table dross while Dortmund v Bayern is on.

Just something to remember whenever that dumb pub debate comes up again. “The Premier League is just so much more entertaining than the Bundesliga.” Depends on the match, depends on the team, depends on the player, depends on the writer, depends on the Vine, the Youtube highlights, the storyline, the replica shirt, your personal mood. It depends.

I saw a trailer for the upcoming Kevin Costner flick Draft Day a few weeks ago, and while it’s been described as a “drama-comedy,” the trailer seemed to lean heavily on the drama. This is remarkable for a number of reasons, mostly for the fact that the movie focuses on an event that is almost entirely ancillary to the on-field play. This got me thinking about the endless possibilities in the footballing sphere for movies about football’s lesser appreciated calendar events. Here are some pitches, free of charge.

UEFA World Cup Qualifiers Draw Day

An ensemble drama which follows the highs and lows of the World Cup qualifier draws, where we see the drama of Liechtenstein, San Marino and the Faroe Islands as they discover their possible pathway to the World Cup. Though the draw is completely random, the film will focus on draw attendees drinking coffee, taking selfies with Jerome Valcke, and checking Tinder.

Community Shield

An exciting sports drama which follows the highs and lows of the FA Cup winning team facing off against the Premier League champions. We will see players slowly and unwillingly train shortly after arriving back from tours in Asia and North America, and the film will culminate in a subdued team-talk from both half-interested managers asking that their players put on a good show for the fans and to make a statement about the rest of the season.

January Transfer Deadline Day

A tense drama which follows the highs and lows of Jim White’s (played by David Lynch) quest to get the scoop of the transfer window—West Ham’s £7 million move for a slightly undervalued left back at Wolfsburg. Watch as White fights through crowds of fans at Upton Park with hastily crafted signs to speak with physios out having a smoke in order to get details over whether the agent has convinced Wolfsburg to drop their sell on clause in time for the 11:00 PM deadline.

Group Stage

A thrilling film following the highs and lows of the opening round of Champions League group stage matches in September. Watch fans sheepishly play off lopsided results as meaningless in the scope of the entire Champions League group stage, and experience the thrill of commentators using metaphors involving the word ‘gauntlet’.

International Friendly

A taut, fast-paced period piece following the highs and lows of a friendly match between Sweden and Bulgaria in 1990.

MLS Combine Day

A road movie/romantic comedy which follows the highs and lows of the Columbus Crew’s performance analyst as he watches a few Major League Soccer combine drills and matches in sunny Florida on his way to falling in love with the press handler for the New England Revs. Their “meet cute” at the stadium Quiznos evokes memories of When Harry Met Sally.

Watch for cameos from Alan Gordon and Jeremy Hall playing a game of chess in the hotel lobby while a homeless man is escorted out of the bathroom.

Testimonial

A character study which follows the highs and lows of Wayne Rooney’s (Albert Finney) testimonial match for Man United. Featuring cameos from former Man United and England team-mates Matthew Upson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Antonio Valencia, we witness the slow ambling play in front of a mostly filled Old Trafford and the sight of a child being allowed to score a goal.

Barcelona's Neymar is surrounded by journalists before his first news conference after a training session at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi

By now you may know the story of Samuel Rhodes. If not, here’s the Financial Times:

He gained 20,000 Twitter followers, exchanged messages with professional footballers and occasionally seemed a step ahead on big moves in English football.

But Samuel Rhodes was not the debonair blond journalist shown in his Twitter avatar. He was the alter ego of Sam Gardiner, a 16-year-old schoolboy from North London.

We’ve been here before. Last March in fact, when the world learned that a breaking story from the Times of London on a Qatar-based club competition was in fact a bad copypasta job from a litigious paranoiac based in Sheffield, claiming to be a connected Parisian football expert. This latter case was slightly more complex, of course, but not by much. The same deadly cocktail of truth, guesswork and fantasy was involved: a plausible rumour perhaps taken from a credible source extrapolated to a probable outcome slightly ahead of time. And voila! Twitter fame!

I had this to say on the matter this past weekend:

Getting wind of transfer news before it breaks is a difficult business. Most clubs are closed shops, and managers and heads of recruitment are naturally reticent over telegraphing their next move lest it affect increasingly high stakes and difficult transfer negotiations. So some of us cut corners. We have a single source. They’ve been dead on the money in the past. Why not just skip the double confirmation bit? It’s just Twitter. Add some caveats while publishing (“could be,” “might be”) and you’ll come out clean on the other end.

This of course leads to a lot of false rumours (officially at a rate of 65% of the time for the most accurate paper in the UK). It’s of course impossible to tell the difference between false transfers and those that simply failed to materialize of course. That’s why the rule of the transfer window is forgive and forget. These are journalists, they’re working to a higher standard than some guy with a rando account claiming to be ITK, right?

But what are football journalists, exactly? Like anyone in a scalable profession, they’re in part benefactors of cumulative advantage or what is often referred to as the Matthew effect. We’re tempted to think that their brilliant sleuthing skills got them jobs at the papers, but often it’s the job itself, which was as much “earned” as it was the result of a series of fortune events, that gave them access to clubs, which can often lead to access to transfer rumours based partially in truth. These are the big winners in the football writing game, because they come stamped with the paper seal of approval. That’s what gets you Twitter followers, that’s what gets you TV spots, that’s what gets you trusted.

It isn’t hard in this environment to be a Sam Rhodes, a huckster who need only add a few false publication credits in his Twitter bio to stave off any doubters. Predictably, Sam’s act eventually landed an actual contact:

In June, James McArthur, a footballer with recently relegated Wigan Athletic, followed his account. That allowed Gardiner to contact him privately with an exploratory message: “Are the rumours true?”

After a friendly exchange, Mr McArthur put Gardiner in touch with another Wigan player, Grant Holt. Gardiner spent Christmas eve in a private Twitter conversation with Mr Holt, then the subject of transfer rumours.

If Sam (Gardiner) had a passion for this work beyond simply baiting gullible club supporters, he’d have likely had as many opportunities (sans the press conferences) for lucky breaks as his actual newspaper counterparts. The veneer of expertise in this dirty business counts for nearly everything (as I’m come to know a little myself during the Rob Beal saga).

Is there a lesson in all this? I think that there will come a generation, perhaps yet unborn, for whom the newspaper credit seal of approval will mean less than an actual demonstrable track record of accuracy in the transfer rumour game. In the future this whole sorry business will the be the sole purview of hobnobbers and gossip artists who have a friend or friends on the inside. As for the professional journalists, they may be better off shelving this stuff altogether, except perhaps as a means to drive up journalist follower counts to ensure more page-views for the longer, more investigative pieces that involve the time and skill set that non-full time rumour spinners don’t have. But even then, the doors to that kind of work are really open to anyone enterprising enough to open them.

The Guardian’s Barney Ronay once dismissively wrote, “We’re all football journalists now.” At some point, we’re going to figure it out and stop taking those publication credits on face value.

Queens Park Rangers' new manager Mark Hughes poses for photos after a press conference at the club's Loftus Road stadium in west London

This Tweet was making the rounds among several football journalists today:

It outlines Newcastle’s new media strategy, which involves charging journalists for “exclusive” interviews with players. This is the latest in a long line of moves from both the Premier League and its member clubs to restrict or charge for access under the guise of protecting its product. For better or worse, many in English football regard media coverage as a proprietary issue.

To someone in North America, particularly the US, this might seem bizarre. Perhaps it’s the combination of a constitutional guarantee of press freedoms and centrally-run professional leagues with long-standing traditions of press access, but the idea of charging news outlets to speak with players appears not only strange, but repugnant.

Intuitively, it makes perfect sense to let reporters into the club to do their job. All newspapers have sports sections, sports is news, sports reporters are at least expected to follow the same ethical guidelines in reporting as their A section counterparts (insert Daily Mail joke here)—why not grant them the access in the name of press freedom?

Yet it’s still difficult to see, on first glance, a legal basis for football clubs in England—most of which are privately owned and operated—to grant press access wherever possible. Private companies aren’t obliged to hold press conferences for example, or answer journalist questions. Freedom of the press in practice means allowing journalists to openly report the news without interference (unless the reporting is defamatory), and holding public institutions like courts, governments, and publicly-funded companies open and accountable to the press. It doesn’t mean forcing private persons or companies to hold press conferences.

Many sports journalists know this, but they argue that it’s in the clubs’ best interests to let the media promote their product to the public. It’s not certain however the Premier League agrees, and in some ways both the PL and clubs view accredited journalists and photographers as just another content provider alongside blogs, betting sites, and aggregators.

Moreover, both clubs and the league know that football helps sells papers, and so they see access as a quid pro quo thing—we’ll let you come into the club and talk to players and the manager if you respect our content agreements with third-party content providers (hence the Premier League’s restrictions on live blogging and publishing match and player data for accredited reporters, thanks to Tom Dart for the link). They also see no problem in picking and choosing which reporters they will let in the building, and have geared rules on media access to primarily benefit rights holders, ie broadcasters.

Meanwhile, managers like Arsene Wenger have been openly critical of his club’s responsibility to speak with the same broadcast media who indirectly pay his clubs millions of pounds in rights fees. The idea that they would extend this apparent privilege to newspapers is laughable.

None of this is, in my opinion, a good thing. Despite the fact they’re often privately owned, football clubs are very much a public, community-based institution. Perhaps one of the more compelling arguments for supporters owning football clubs is the attendant responsibility to be publicly accountable to the media, rather than trying to hoover up every possible pound from the press.

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So the new season is much closer than you think. DON’T PANIC! In order to help tell you what you should think about things, I’ve tried to guess at the media narratives (mostly English-speaking media, mind) that will dominate the discourse for the next two months.

The Premier League

The running theme is all bets are off! Sir Alex Ferguson has gone, so now we can all dream dreams once more!

Prepare for a lot of “gauntlets” to be thrown in the title race, amid reminders that “it’s still too early”. Should Manchester United do well, there may be one or two “this is SAF’s team”‘s, but generally I think there are many who would love nothing more than David Moyes to be a kind of regenerated Fergie. I mean, they both have those adorable Scottish accents and seem vaguely angry all the time!

As for Chelsea, there could be a lot of the “Does Jose Mourinho still have it?” angle should the team falter early, as well as several pundits wondering to no one in particular whether the squad he inherited does not have the same loyalty as the one he commandeered in 2004. If Chelsea does well, they will be “genuine title contenders” although they’ll be the unofficial second fiddle to Manchester City.

City will be the lynch-pin of the entire thing, and this again comes down to the adaptability of Pellegrini to English football. My own sense is he’s easily won hearts and minds in the English media, having convinced everyone that City’s spending has been responsible and measured on guys like Fernandinho, and Pellegrini’s tactical plans are sound and mature. So if he does well, they’re champions, and if he doesn’t do well, they’re going through a slow start but will eventually become champions.

Arsenal’s season will look exactly like it has for the past four years. Some very good games, some unexpected losses, a lot of naval-gazing. Complaints that Wenger didn’t follow through on his spending spree promises, then a spending spree on August 31st. Spurs’ story will hang on whether Bale leaves or stays, and you know how it ends either way.

As for the rest of the league, Newcastle will be absolutely hated because it’s run by a Joe Kinnear. Cardiff will be watched with derision from the left and fascination from everyone else.

I’ve said nowt about Liverpool, haven’t I?

The Bundesliga

Pep! Peppy Pep Pep Pepper Pep! Everything rides on the ex-Barcelona man, and the tactical transformation from the Jupp Heynckes quick turnover route to Guardiola’s more patient, passing build up play. Should Bayern start well you’ll read a lot about the European “steamroller” and how it’s also damnably unfair because they earn so much money under the scam that is FFP, and if it goes pear-shaped there will be stuff about Guardiola as over-rated, or Bayern’s players being unable to adapt to Guardiola’s “vision” or whatever.

My guess is Borussia Dortmund and Schalke will be in a kind of early death match for second place. Schalke have to do much to add to their squad except bringing on the heavily-hailed 18 year old midfielder Leon Goretzka, while Dortmund won the Super Cup and kept Lewandowski amid a pile of hype. Elsewhere in the league, you know, keep an eye on Hannover?

La Liga

This will likely be another annual edition of Godzilla versus Mothra, with the entire rest of the league playing the role of Tokyo. The major point of order here involves the changing of the managerial guard, and whether Florentino Perez’s “Neuvos Galacticos” (I just made that up) can blow past any and all holes in their otherwise considerable roster.

Personally, the first two months of the season will involve me having to restrain myself while Real Madrid flail about for the first little while under Carlo Ancelotti. I have no beef with the man, but I do have a beef with the post-Mourinho Marca spinners who looked a jerk-faced but successful gift horse in the mouth before shooting it in the face. Should this happen I have no idea what the media will say, but I will only be restrained in my temper by those two little words: sample size.

Barcelona will be, in all honesty, the most interesting team to watch in the early part of the season. Tito Vilanova’s downturn health is very sad, and it also represents a possible transition from the familiar Barca Way. Tata Martino’s last accomplishment was leading a determined Newell’s Old Boys side, and I expect we’ll see a lot of tacticians come out in the wings if his Barca succeed with the “I knew this would happen” type stories, based on their hours of watching the two Torneos late into the evening.

Serie A

Methinks this could be the year when everyone exclaims that Serie A is back, baby! The eighties are here again! Free Silvio! Messi to Napoli! And so forth.

Why? I don’t have any good reason, except to hope that, as with the Premier League, the binge spending of Aurelio De Laurentiis will shower trophy upon trophy on southern Italy and Napoli will rise again. We’ve been down this road before, including last season I believe.

However, with new signings comes hope. But this will likely come down to the usual grudge match between Juventus and Milan, who did much to cast off the tired catenaccio stereotype against Manchester City the other day. Milan for their part have done jack shit so far in their attempt to overcome their Turin rivals, with their biggest chunk of change going to Christian Zapata for five million pounds. As for Inter: crickets.

Juventus have Carlos Tevez, which will at least be funny for a while until everyone realizes he can still score goals that help to win games. And we’ll see Angelo Ogbonna play centreback in the Champions League should Chiellini find himself knacked up yet again.

Fiorentina look pretty cool too in the off-season, having picked up Mario Gomez and Josep Ilicic. Sadly they might replace Udinese’s role as the perpetual pretenders to the outside spots, but I wouldn’t place bets. And Strootman’s at Roma! Good old horse face.

Ligue 1

PSG will win it again under Laurent Blanc, and next year the Eredivisie will replace the league in this final Big Five slot. I kid! But not really.

Anyhoo, not much to say here. PSG have added Cavani, Lucas Digne and Marquinhos to the squad at considerable cost, and the team now accounts for around one third of the entire league transfer expenditures. Everyone else have picked up dribs and drabs except of course for AS Monaco, who walk in the game with James Rodriguez, Joao Moutinho and Falcao, in addition to several others. So kind of like Godzilla versus Mothra, but a much crappier production.

Chelsea/Jose Mourinho Press Conference

Sitting there, I felt my eyes drying out, one molecule at time. My back and shoulders had slowly tensed and the dull, unrelenting pain of it nagged away at my consciousness, allowing no other thoughts in except: ‘Let me get out of here; I’ll do anything to be able to get out of here; why won’t you plleeease let me leave?’ And then, dear reader, I realized I wasn’t actually at Manuel Pelligrini’s first press conference as Manchester City manager, I was merely watching it on TV.

In what I feel comfortable in saying was the greatest moment in my life so far, I turned the TV off—the joy at being able to do so matched only by the joy at being able to turn it off a second time, after I’d turned it back on again, just to be able to turn it off. I repeated this process for hours, blissfully unaware of the growing pressure to stop from other people in the bar.

Partly, I think, the problem with these press conferences is the summer. Though we all heard about the international football being played a few weeks ago via the mass protests which surrounded it (a little harsh on the Spanish national side, I agree, but their time has come and the people of Brazil were right to express frustration), I am not yet ready to accept that anyone watches international football. And though there are the daily transfer rumours to get through as well, as far as I know or am inclined to find out, mainstream European football stops during the summer. Which leaves a void.

This summer, the most convenient answer to The Void has been ‘unveiling the new manager’ press conferences. Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, David Moyes at Manchester United and Manuel Pellegrini at City. Others may have occurred also, but it is hardly my fault if they failed to gain my attention.

You end up watching these non-event events out of necessity, not out of love. They were designed for reporting on by journalists, and now they appear on our TV screens because 24 hour sports news channels have minutes to fill and we have lives to live out. It’s a bad start in any relationship. Because yes, necessity is the mother of invention, but it also gave birth to monotony and resentment.

And we’re then stuck watching something which is innately dull. The purpose behind unveilings is, helpfully, in the title: they’re about unveiling the new manager. In terms of offering up entertainment, I hope you can see the flaw in this already. If Manchester City tell us that Manuel Pelligrini is their new manager and that really is all they want us to know, watching an hour of Manuel Pelligrini rephrasing the idea that he is Manchester City’s new manager will clearly not be a joy to watch—his way with words aside.

What’s more, I come with bad news: the more the non-event events are covered, the more precise an art they become, and the duller they become. The guy with the new job just reads a script. “”I know the last two years were not very good in the Champions League and I will try to improve that. That’s not the only thing, though, and I will try to get another Premier League title,” said Pelligrini, pointing out absolutely nothing. “I was shocked but also incredibly thrilled that I was given the opportunity to manage Manchester United,” said David Moyes, though of course what he meant to say was “nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing.”
We are watching middle-aged men reading out pre-prepared scripts designed specifically to be monotonous. These are our lives.

But I understand it. Oh, I understand it. We all know why we keep thinking it might be good. Jose Mourinho, Version One: The Special One Press Conference. “Please do not call me arrogant,” he said. Remember? Of course you do, you’re probably breathing heavily already. “Because what I say is true,” he went on, whilst many of us went for a cold shower. “I’m European champion, I’m not one out of the bottle, I think I’m a special one.” That was Mourinho’s first Chelsea press conference and, if we’re honest with ourselves, that is the reason—the only reason—why we could ever expect anything good to come of one of these things.

But look. Even the man who said those words back then wouldn’t say those words now. “”I’m the happy one,” was what he offered this summer, a watered-down parody of the original incident that has turned out to be singular exception in an otherwise all-conquering rule: managers being unveiled is not interesting.

Moyes, Mourinho and Pelligrini represent big new changes at big old clubs. Exciting things might happen whilst they are in charge of those clubs. But announcing their arrivals, and telling us what’s happening on their lucrative tours for that matter, is really, really boring. Either change the script or change the channel.

*And yes, if you want to read this entire piece as an excuse for the standard of coverage of these press conferences, by people like me, then you are free to do so. And also correct.