In the second part of our interview, popular football writer and author discusses Brazilian football, Poland and Ukraine's co-hosting of EURO 2012, The Blizzard magazine and more...
Following on from part 1, where Jonathan discussed liberos, zonal marking, back threes and more, we then discussed world football issues such as the Brazilian league and Poland and Ukraine’s co-hosting of EURO 2012, as well as his work on The Blizzard and his various football books.
Simply from following you on Twitter it’s easy to tell that you have a keen interest in South American football. But with the juggernaut of the Champions League, do you think leagues outside of Europe will be able to hold onto their stars, or will they continue to be seen as feeder leagues and development grounds for European teams?
What’s interesting at the moment is how much money there suddenly is in Brazilian football; there’s a lot of money in Middle Eastern football in certain teams and certain leagues, and also Chinese football, but I guess the problem with the Middle East and China is that they don’t have particularly big crowds, or particularly strong traditions. There’s a sense of selling out when you go to the Middle East, when you go to China; with Asamoah Gyan going there in his mid-twenties it just seems like an awful waste of talent. At 35 it’s cashing out at the end of your career, getting some money to retire with – I don’t think anyone blames players for that. But going there in your mid-twenties I think is just not testing yourself, you’re not going to get the best out of your abilities. So unless a Middle Eastern team can suddenly sign 11 players of Asamoah Gyan’s quality, and another two or three teams also do that so there’s suddenly competitiveness in the league, I think the money there’s almost irrelevant. What’s interesting is Brazil, there is tradition, there are the huge crowds… at the moment it tends to be persuading Brazilians to come back; people like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Deco… even somebody like Jadson, who’s had a perfectly good career at Shakhtar Donetsk, in previous years might have moved to a mid-ranked Italian club, mid-ranked Spanish club – he’s gone back to Sao Paolo. So that I think shows the growing strength of Brazilian football. The fact that they’ve been able to take Seedorf, as Botafogo have, saying it’s worth spending two years there; maybe the pace won’t be quite like it is in Europe but the quality’s there. So I think that’s interesting, that Brazil suddenly has money, and I don’t think that will diminish in the immediate future; the Brazilian economy is very strong, Brazilian football is very strong. The fact that they’ve got such a big population means they can actually support a league where 6 or 7 teams are competitive, which hardly any other country in the world has, so that makes it more attractive to viewers. Even the fact that ESPN have picked up the rights for the Brazilian league from Premier Sport, that shows that Brazilian football is starting to catch on. I think anybody watching Brazilian football can see it’s of a very good technical standard – maybe the pace is a bit slower than here but that allows for a different type of game; it allows individual skills which in some ways makes it perhaps more watchable than European football. If their rights start to go up then they’ll obviously get more money, they’ll be able to attract better players, keep hold of their young players for longer; the fact that Neymar and Ganso are both committed to staying at Santos until at least the World Cup, well my understanding is that Neymar has already signed a deal with Barcelona and he will move there after the World Cup, but the fact that they’ve been able to hold onto them until they’re 23/24, rather than losing them when they were 18/19, I think shows Brazilian football is up-and-coming. Whether the Arab leagues, whether the Chinese leagues, can ever catch up I don’t know… they’re starting from a much lower base, but I think places like Argentina for instance, I think the economy of football there certainly is all over the place. Every club owes a massive amount of debt, the government’s pretty much nationalised football by buying back all the contracts, all the TV rights. So basically football in Argentina has been subsidised by the state, and even then they can’t hold onto players. What that does mean is that the Argentinian league is very competitive, because you have what’s effectively a reverse draft, where rather than the worst team getting the pick of the best players, the best team immediately loses their best players, because whenever a club wins the league in Argentina, predators from Brazil or even the Middle East, China, Europe, pick up their best players, and reduce their level, so everybody’s effectively on the same level. So that makes it very watchable in some ways, but the quality in Argentina is very low. So in answer to your question I think Brazil could become very competitive very quickly… everywhere else probably not.
The impression that I got from most other journalists was that they had a pretty good time, they found people in Poland and Ukraine very welcoming, but there were severe logistical problems which I think undermined everything.
Given your work on Eastern European football, how successful do you consider Ukraine and Poland’s co-hosting of EURO 2012? After the sensationalist build-up, did anything surprise you?
It’s a difficult question to answer. I definitely wanted them to do well, I definitely wanted them to succeed; and in a certain way I guess they did. All the sensationalist build-up to do with hooliganism and racism; none of that came to pass. There was some isolated trouble at the Russia vs Poland game, which had very specific causes, and particularly bad luck that the game happened to be being played in Warsaw on Russian National Day. So that was always a flash-point and it was unfortunate; I don’t think in any sense it over-shadowed the tournament, there were a couple of other instances but that’s true of any tournament… The impression that I got from most other journalists was that they had a pretty good time, they found people in Poland and Ukraine very welcoming, but there were severe logistical problems which I think undermined everything. Partly the distances involved; if you have to travel six hours between each venue, as Platini said, you might as well have it in London and Paris and Amsterdam because it’s actually easier than getting from Warsaw to Gdansk. I think it was a flawed tournament from the outset, there were problems basically caused by the lack of infrastructure; the stadiums were excellent, I don’t think anyone had any problems with them, they were all absolutely first-rate. But for instance in Donetsk there were pretty much 5 hotels, so that meant the hotels could just whack up the prices to ludicrous levels… I’ll tell you a story of one journalist who on the morning of the semi-final had to check out of his hotel, didn’t have anywhere to stay that night, he went in reception and said: “I know how hotels work, you’re never 100% full, have you really got nothing?” They said: “Hang around a bit, we’ll see,” and every ten minutes he went up and asked: “Have you got anything?”; eventually after two hours they said “Yep, it’ll be £500,” he hands over the credit card, it’s all agreed… and he checks back into the room he’d just checked out of! If that money was even going back into the Ukrainian economy it wouldn’t be so bad. But that money was going straight into an American firm. And so you kinda think, “Who does that benefit? Who benefits from the tournament being in Donetsk?” It wasn’t the local people of Donetsk because they couldn’t even afford tickets. I guess local businesses had rising profits over the short-term but it would be very short-term… there was even one taxi driver, I said to him, “There’s a real culture of taxi drivers and hotels ripping people off, doesn’t that bother you? Don’t you see you’re harming repeat business?” He said: “There is no repeat business, nobody’s going to come back to Donetsk, it’s not somewhere you go for your holidays.” And I guess he’s right, but that’s a shame – Donetsk is actually very nice; it’s an industrial city, it’s a working city… but there are plenty of nice churches; plenty of nice restaurants; plenty of nice parks… it’s not a bad city in any sense. But I guess a lot of people who went came back with a bad impression, purely because prices were so high and things were so difficult. And that’s why you saw so many empty seats. So it worked in some ways, it didn’t work in others. I think these tournaments in big countries – it was true in South Africa, it’ll be true in Brazil, probably Russia as well – it just defeats the purpose of having the tournament in one country. It’s supposed to be this festival where fans and journalists and scouts come together to watch a lot of football, exchange ideas, exchange knowledge, everybody has a good time together, everybody learns together… if you’re then 6 hours apart it just doesn’t happen.
Onto The Blizzard; have you found its pricing structure worthwhile so far? With pay-what-you-like options for digital and print issues, has it given you a clear idea of your readership?
It definitely works, we made enough money to keep pretty much everybody happy in the first year – writers are paid a percentage of the profit. Nobody complained about the money they got, I think quite a few were pleasantly surprised by the amount of money that they got, so I think people have respected the pricing model. It was a gamble on all sides when we started, we said to writers: “You might get nothing, you might get a lot, we don’t know, but this is the plan, we’ll be open, we’ll be absolutely transparent,” and writers bought into that. Then we said to readers: “This is the project, this is what we’re doing, you pretty much have to make it work by paying us realistically,” and that means paying in accordance with what they think it’s worth and what they can basically afford. We didn’t want to price out students, people on low incomes – we wanted to be as global as possible, so we didn’t want to price out people in countries with lower income. I think by and large people have respected that and have paid sensibly enough that at the moment everybody seems happy and at the moment everything continues to grow. Whether that’s the case in a year’s time, I’ll tell you that in a year’s time. Things are going pretty well thanks yeah.
I think writing about tactics and finding a semi-coherent structure that fits everything together, I think there’s something quite exciting about that; condensing 140 years of football history into one narrative, and the structural challenge of doing that.
I suppose the motivation is that you can write about exactly what you want as a writer, rather than being restricted by the mainstream media.
Exactly yeah, and I think that probably means people are prepared to work for a little bit less. But actually the way we’ve been able to pay has been pretty competitive so far and hopefully will become even more competitive as we go forward.
You’ve written books about specific clubs, countries, areas of the game and specific people. Has there been one subject you enjoyed writing about the most?
I don’t know, different things give you different satisfactions. I think writing about tactics and finding a semi-coherent structure that fits everything together, I think there’s something quite exciting about that; condensing 140 years of football history into one narrative, and the structural challenge of doing that. I think it is relatively coherent, that was great, very interesting. Writing about Sunderland was great because it was something very dear to me, both in terms of the club and the city. As for writing about the former Yugoslavia that’s a place I have a lot of affection for, I think the stories that come out of there are fantastic, and it fascinates me as a concept in that it held together for so long, despite such clear flaws; and then the way things cleared up remarkably quickly from the war. And I think looking back over history there’s sort of a recurring theme that there’s 50 years of peace then 2 years of war, and that fascinates me, that historical cycle. So they all have different things that make them interesting and make them intriguing. I’ve been very lucky that pretty much the last 10 years I haven’t had to write about anything that hasn’t interested me. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.
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