Sept. 17, 2011 – The Serious Sometimes Insensitive Business of World Cup Journalism

An hour before the kick-off of the USA vs Russia match I was perfectly situated on the midfield line a few rows below the VIP booths where the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia was mingling with the New Zealand PM and Miss Russia. I had passed through the media centre where, by a quick count, 25 journalists beavered away on their computers or munched on the vegetarian (cauliflower and gruyere) or meatball pasta options  while large muted tvs broadcast the images of their colleagues silently analyzing the upcoming match. The hostess spotted me as a probable new comer to the pundit scrum and took my empty plate before chatting about how she had recently moved back from Portugal but had been a hostess at the Taranaki Stadium for years before her life in the warmth and sunshine of Portugal. I followed her advice of mixing a package of Nescafe and half a package of Milo for a reasonable mocha.

After scanning the slowly filling stadium, the warm-up activities of both sides,` and the empty rows of press seats, I left my rain coat on the back of my seat and went in search of atmosphere and  there was plenty to be had at the stadium concessions. I got a fairly reasonably priced Heineken (NZ$ 7.50 = US$6.75) and watched the fantastic swirl of costumes, wigs, painted faces, and team colors that moved about with the occasional USA chant followed by the singsong reply of RUSSIA. The mood was so warm and pleasant that it sounded more like a mating call than the challenge of supporters of teams that were about to battle over the one World Cup match that they could reasonably expect to win. I took a few pictures of faces and costumes and practiced my Russian with a lady dressed as a Russia princess. She told me (I think, my Russian being very rusty) that she had been unaware until a few months ago that Russia had a rugby team much less that they would be in the World Cup. She was a Russian language instructor at a university in Palmerston North (about 150 miles from New Plymouth where the match was taking place). There were a few more Russian princesses and a good number of Russian soldiers in the crowd and at least 2 Captain Americas.

When I returned to my seat my journalist neighbors were in their places. On one side was Alex Goff (Goff on Rugby) and on the other side a couple of guys from the sport website (or so they told me). The young “deadspin” guys were on a limited budget. They had been staying in the locker room of a local rugby club and were hitch-hiking up to Hamilton the next day to New Zealand versus Japan (FYI New Zealand won 83-7). On both sides of me fingers were flying over their keyboards while I pulled out my mini-sketch pad and pencil and placed them down on the team rosters media operations provided. As I am writing this I realize why I should have been word processing at the match, but this tale needed a little time to simmer.

I’ve posted a brief report on the match and if you want a detailed account go to “Goff on Rugby” at Rugby Magazine. I don’t have internet at the site where our camper van is currently parked, but  Google “Goff on Rugby”. Soon after the match the media folks hustled us down to the press conference room where we heard fairly standard statements from the Russian captain and coach as translated for us by the very cute interpreter. I thought the Russian captain (Korshunov – their hooker) looked very gutted by the loss, but then I recalled that he looked very similar at the press conference the day before. He did at one point mention how the loss was particularly tough because of the Cold War rivalry – or something like that. I had thought the Cold War rivalry thing was just media fabrication and I doubt if Vlad (Russian captain’s first name) had much recall of the Cold War which ended 20 years ago with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The coach, Nikolay Nerush, closed the conference by speaking of his pride in his team and how they were a try away from a draw right up to the end of the match. I was moved by his support of his team and the image of the effort his team had put forth and applauded as they left the conference table. Several of my journalistic colleagues gave me askew glances and one of the deadspin guys nudged me and said we don’t applaud at these conferences. Eddie O’Sullivan and Todd Clever came and did very much the same with no cute interpreter needed. The Russians spoke of line-out problems. The USA spoke of line-out success. Both coaches spoke of pride intheir  team’s effort. Journalists asked polite questions with occasional forays into possibly controversial areas like a question to Todd about what had transpired between him and Byrne in their altercation, and the media  savvy coaches and captains side-stepped the lunges with adept replies like, ‘I don’t recall’.

We were then ushered into a room referred to as  mixed media area or something like that. It was a hall with a zigzag rope running down the middle. I assumed some players would be brought out for media folks to single out for individual questions. I stood there about 5 minutes trying to think of a question or 2 for a player, but couldn’t come up with anything beyond asking Taku Ngwenya why he dropped the ball so much and was he frustrated with not getting ball quicker with more space, but as I stood there I tried to put myself in the players’ spot. If I had just played the match I thought I would just want to get on the bus and go have a beer or two. I wouldn’t want to answer mostly mundane, some bizarre, but overwhelmingly annoying questions from a bunch of strangers. I zipped up my jacket and rain coat against the cold and frequent Taranaki drizzle and headed to the media shuttle, getting reprimanded by security on the way for not having my identification showing.

Post match festivities were in full swing in downtown New Plymouth. The town seemed to have gotten it right. A huge tent was stretched across a street beside the town’s famous Irish bar (Peggy Gordon’s). There was a solid rock band blasting out covers with a  bar running down one side of the tent and a couple of food stands on the other. Police were very visible, and usually they seemed engaged in a friendly discussion with some intoxicated person about the match or the state of the world. At about midnight I ended up in the bar at the GCR hotel chatting with a Kiwi tv commentator “Scotty”, sipping a JD on the rocks (NZ$10) and waiting for the taxi line to go down. One of Scotty’s colleagues (Scotty informed me he had been the captain of Tonga in the 95 World Cup) started a conversation with a lovely lady in the bar. Being a bit of a natural eavesdropper I picked up a few words like “husband, Todd, Japan, years left on contract” and being the clever reporter that I purport to be I deduced that this was Mrs. Clever.  As the taxi line wasn’t shrinking too quickly I ordered another JD practiced my Russian eavesdropping on the young Russian couple next to me, and waited to see if Todd would show up. (The only thing I could pick up on the Russian couple was that she kept telling him something he should do.) My wait was soon rewarded when Todd showed up, held his new baby, kissed his wife, chatted with his friends. As he passed by where I was sitting I said, “Great win and great game, as usual.” He gave me that warm Clever smile said a sincere thanks and headed off with his family. Thank goodness I hadn’t thought of any questions that would have kept him longer at the stadium.

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