FP Exclusive: Why We Write and Jonathan Wilson On The Evolution of Football Journalism

We tell you why Football Paradise exists to write, and speak with Jonathan Wilson on the evolution of football journalism.

“Fortunate is he who can understand the causes of things.”

– Virgil, Georgics

Let us start from the beginning. That seems like a nice place to start. Two members of the Football Paradise team flew over to Manchester expecting to win nothing at The Football Blogging Awards last November. They were there because we were nominated as the Best International Football Blog out of thousands. They were there partly because it seemed like the right thing to do, and mostly because it was one of those nights all of us want to live for or work towards. Brushing shoulders with the elite, red carpets, propped-up sponsors’ backdrop for the token “I was here” photographs, the twinkling of jewellery against held up wine glasses, polite chatter, the best tux, the best dresses, and the best banter. Pretty sure Oasis was playing on the P.A too.

Gaurang Manjrekar’s favourite bands are U2 and Foster the People. As you can tell from his choice of music, he is the uppity fella. Anu Nande, our editor and an Arsenal fan, was a realist out of habit, up until her and Gaurang’s names were called to come up on stage. Speculation was rife on our WhatsApp group, that the reason why it took them a long time to get there was because they were at the buffet counter. Exhibit A is below.

“When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thickskinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.

The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.”

– Neil Gaiman, at the class of 2012 commencement speech, Philadelphia

Neil Gaiman, the author of Sandman. His mastery of imagery and narration has turned an entire generation to the wonders of fiction. He famously said, ‘Fiction is the gateway drug to reading.’

Football Paradise, a part-time football blog from India won the Judges’ Choice Award as the Best International Blog. The roster of judges included Guardian’s Barney Ronay, Phil McNulty of the BBC, Bianca Westwood of Sky Sports, Paolo Bandini of ESPN, Kate Riley of CNN, and other superstars of football content and broadcasting media. Suddenly, Gaurang, our founder, a Harvard Business School profiled student, wasn’t his eloquent Ivy league self. He blurted out something about how we were just a bunch of engineers, MBA graduates, medical students who, after a long hard day, still turn up to write out of sheer affection for the game and little or no expectations, sending out messages in bottles for the last eight years. It’s important that you should know why.

“Is there any cultural practice more global than football? Rites of birth, death and marriage are universal, but infinite in their diversity. Football is played by the same rules everywhere. No single world religion can match its geographical scope. Even Christianity, borne on the back of European expansion, is a relatively minor player across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The use of English and the vocabularies of science and mathematics must run football close for universality, but they remain the lingua francas of the world’s elites, not of its masses. McDonald’s, MTV? Only the most anodyne products of America’s cultural industries can claim a reach as wide as football’s, and then only for a fleeting moment in those parts of the world that can afford them. Around half the planet watched the 2006 World Cup Final – three billion humans have never done anything simultaneously before. Football is available to anyone who can make a rag ball and find another pair of feet to pass to. Football has not merely been consumed by the world’s societies, it has been embraced, embedded and then transformed by them.

Important enough to be distrusted and banned by the last nervous Ottoman Sultanate, the neurotic demagogues of China’s Cultural Revolution and Iran’s revolutionary theocracy. Important enough that football has either outlasted its oppressors or forced them to relent. For football is driven by love and money, and if anything trumps life and death then they do.”

– David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round

David Goldblatt has inherited, for his sins, Tottenham Hotspurs from his father. Flirted with careers in stand-up comedy, medicine, politics before writing The Game of Our Lives, to which Wall Street Journal conferred the title of “not just the best soccer book in many years, but an exemplary account of the changing character of British society in the post-Thatcher era”.

Football matters because it has more about it than 22 (25 if you count the match officials) grown men running around with diabolically short shorts, trying to stop each other put an inflated bladder into propped-up fishnets. Hundred-thousand stadium lengths away from what we consider your Mecca and Medina, we unapologetically ‘feel’ for a football club as any local would. It’s much more than the common denominator of having an invoice of our club’s most recent third kit in our inbox. It’s much more primal.

Reason takes a backseat to the almost prehistoric pang of pinning our colours to a mast; of face paints and markings to designate our tribe. Violently bright, flagrant colours. If a conflict is presented for public perusal, it is art. And in this form of gladiatorial gallantry, there are no shadowy corners of misinterpretation to hide in unlike literature, paintings, or in fact, religion. There is no sleight of hand, no obscurity. People own this art, and by its virtue, it reflects theirs.

Broadsword nationalism is outnumbered by the switchblade knives of societal truths. Former footballers’ names are sung more than any martyr, saint, despot or liberator. A football stadium, metropolitan or provincial theatres elicit tears of a blue-collared everyman more frequently than war memorials would. Football holds more gravity over life and death, because with life and death there is a start and an ending, while with football clubs it’s all about narrative scopes that outlive us all. And all of us want a part of it.

The ultimate football orator/manager, Bill Shankly of Liverpool.

This is not to condone the knife fights in Naples or the arson in Galatasaray, but to say that if football can make the Third Reich insecure enough, and the Soviet to deem it incendiary enough to stir a sleeping nation from their collective slumber with the rumour of The Death Match, it is safe to say, it can make few fanatics do things that would be foolish, and the clever ones among them to misuse it as the ultimate device for partisan propaganda.

This was never more apparent than in 2012 when on-the-run Russian-Israeli oligarch, Arcadi Gaydamak, an admirer of Machiavellian principles, and the tai chi, loaned two Muslim players (19-year-old midfielder Dzhabrail Kadiyev and 23-year-old striker Zaur Sadayev) from Chechnya as a business transaction with Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen republic, and transplanted them into an all Judeo-Christian Israeli club, Beitar Jerusalem. This sparked widespread racist outrage and arson from right-wing fans that made the President of Israel call for an intervention on national TV.

“I was coming out of the gym and my phone was blitzed with calls and messages – What the hell could have happened? Has a war started? I remember the headline: ‘Arcadi Gaydamak signed two Muslims for Beitar Jerusalem.’ Not ‘football players’, not ‘new signings’, ‘two Muslims’.

I played 12 years for this club, I have been lifted above their heads, but now, I have been listed as a protection priority – a category only used for senior government ministers, not even for members of parliament. Two bomb disposal officers come to my office and tell me to check under my car every morning. Those same fans stood two metres away from me and told me: We will rape your daughter. They said it to my face.”

– Itzik Kornfein, former chairman, Beitar Jerusalem, on the attrition he faced for defending the right of the two Muslim players to play

Itzik Kornfein, former captain, the symbol of Beitar Jerusalem was deemed a traitor and was forced to resign at the end of the season.

Established in 1936, Beitar Jerusalem forms the largest fan base of football supporters in Israel and holds the distinction of being the most racist club in the world. Representing Mizrahi Jews and the right-wing, a bastion for the Likud party, anybody who ever dreamt of consolidating power in Israel, had to win over the fans of Beitar. Nothing stood in their way when they sabotaged their team’s season by boycotting games, which almost saw them get relegated.

“I never was a football fan, I’ve always said that. Beitar has more fans than all the clubs of Israel put together – that’s why it’s a useful propaganda tool. They think, by shouting ‘Death to Arabs’, they express their allegiance to the Jewish nation.

The purpose of the transfers (of the Muslim players) is obvious – It was organised not because they were good footballers, no – I don’t have any idea if they are good. I assumed there would be a big reaction. I wanted to show society as it really is – expose its real face.”

– Arcadi Gaydamak, the former owner of Beitar Jerusalem, introduced a bit of anarchy out of spite

Playing god: Arcadi Gaydamak bought the club to support his candidacy for mayor of Jerusalem. He ended up getting 3.6% of the votes despite investing millions into the club.

Despite itself, football is still our staunchest recourse every weekend. For all its flaws, for all the disappointments, we have something that makes us go, ah, well, there’ll be the next match to look forward to. In between all the doldrums and the lows of routine, it makes us optimistic and makes us belong.

“In 1986, I discovered South America, and it was in that fanatical continent that I became truly convinced by the power of football. Noting recent news about military juntas, kidnapping and armed robberies, a respected friend of my father told me, ‘It’s dangerous out there; you’d better pack a… football.’

Up the Trans-Amazonian highway, the atmosphere changed, and when I pulled in at a remote service station at night, a group of vagabonds with machetes (swords) descended on me. Still confident, I threw the ball in the air and, as it came down, I jumped up, closed my eyes as usual and headed it over the heads of the group, before shouting one of my few Portuguese words – ‘Goooooooooollllllll!’ – and chasing after it. Within seconds, the machetes were piled to one side, and trucks were carefully moved to provide floodlights so we could have a barefoot match. Several bottles of cachaca (a fermented drink) later, I was waved off by my new friends minus the football, which seemed like the opposite of a price to pay.”

– Rowan Simons, Bamboo Goalposts, 2008

Rowan Simons used a football like a ‘bible, universal translator, a character reference, and a get out of jail card all rolled into one’. He adds in his book, ‘surely, football is man’s best friend.’

With footballers, there’s an unspoken bond for those ninety minutes plus extra time, a sacred tether that we bind ourselves to willingly that yanks at our heartstrings. We feel the inches that separate glory and ignominy. We cry their tears, we exalt in their ecstasy. Wince at every crunching tackle. And through the course, eventually, we ride through every emotion imaginable. We will footballers to do miracles. And remind ourselves how ‘impossible’ was just another word we outgrew.

“Kinship with giants has a dual effect. It encourages pride and humility. Having listened at length to Big Jock (Stein), Sir Matt (Busby), Bill (Shankly) and Bob (Paisley) and the rest, I am never likely to imagine that my own opinions about football (relatively) mean very much. Yet being around such men was never a belittling experience. Almost invariably they, and all the other great players and managers of many races, caste and creed, have raised my spirits and deepened my understanding to what I regard as the most beautiful and exhilarating of all team games. And if (this book) has credentials, they exist in the exposure to the best and the brightest in football that 35 years of sports reporting has afforded me.

As a reporter, to my credit, I’ve always seen the game through my own eyes – not so long ago this assertion would have seemed laughable since just about every professional in my business could say as much and expect to be believed. In recent years, however, there has emerged a breed of football journalists who appear unable to put pen to paper until some player or manager has interpreted the action for them. You feel that if they went blind, their working efficiency would be unaffected, but if they went deaf they would not have the first idea of what happened in the park. Their method is a plague, and it’s spreading.”

– Hugh McIlvanney, McIlvanney on Football, 1994

Veteran football journalist, Hugh McIlvanney’s fears were all too real.

The symbiotic relationship between the scribe and the giants of the game, coupled with the sincerity of reportage made for timeless literature such as The Soccer Syndrome (John Moynihan), and The Football Man (Arthur Hopcraft). They laid the foundations for current modern classics like Brilliant Orange and Football Men. However, tabloids have broken down the co-existence between the scholar and the performer, and the trust has been compromised. Thus, while the emergence of new media means that the accessibility to information has increased, the walls between the player and the journalist are lined thicker.

“Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. Before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.”

– George Orwell, Why I Write, 1946

Like Orwell strived to make political writing an art form, The Blizzard makes football literature kinder, fairer, and wholesome.

The sport of football has been trivialised ad nauseam, and football players dehumanised, commodified as hollow receptacles of talent and cash, and not as personalities we can learn from, but to hype and debase; scrutinised without a semblance of empathy, taste or context by the emerging media, tabloids and clickbait websites.

In the summer of 2008, a group of friends got together in Mumbai after a kickabout, and decided, ‘nope, not having any of that.’ Naive and young, we saw ourselves the apostles of the beautiful game, and this alarming trend was seen as an affront to our faith. Enlivened by the recent recognition we are looking forward to chipping away at that wall with spoons, but you should know that we don’t profess to be journalists or intellectuals.

We are self-aware bloggers, supporters out to get our own back for football’s shortcomings and curate a bit of glory in the untended plots of history. We believe ‘literature cannot occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too‘.

We write because there are myths to dispel or a lie to fight, or simply if there’s a story of redemption that needs to be told. We are here out of respect for history, and the fun of treasure hunting. Ultimately, we are here because we love the sound of words striking words and the persistence of prose. Football Paradise is the chic do-gooding pamphleteers on the street corners; we are fresh, we are persistent, and here for the good fight. And we hope that our love will be contagious.

“We’re in a transitional world right now. If you’re in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing. I’ve talked to people at the top of the food chain in publishing, in bookselling, in all those areas, and nobody knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away. The distribution channels that people had built over the last century or so are in flux for print, for visual artists, for musicians, for creative people of all kinds.

Which is, on the one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we’re supposed to’s of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web (and whatever comes after YouTube and the web) can give you more people watching than television ever did. The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are.”

– Neil Gaiman.

We do confess to reading a lot, though – football books and writers without whom our lives would be incomplete – and it is through this written word do we find a kinship with the knowledge of the giants. Jonathan Wilson is one of those giants of modern football literature, with his book Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics inspiring an entire generation to watch the game of football smartly. The multi-award winning scholar chats with Football Paradise regarding the evolution of football journalism, a conversation for which we are equal parts proud, humbled and fortunate to understand the causes of things.

Jonathan Wilson, one of football literature's elite.

FP: You mentioned in Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina, of El Grafico, which was the gold standard of football journalism of the 1920s and the 1930s – in the sense that it was years ahead of its time of its British counterparts which just collected match reports and interviews. How has that changed? Also, which of the publications that you’ve worked for strives in upholding the virtues of El Grafico?

Jonathan Wilson: It’s so different now, in terms of production and in terms of the reading culture back in the 1920s. We can never go back to a situation where we can have a magazine like El Grafico, not in Argentina or anywhere. That was a magazine that worked brilliantly at its time, it was hugely influential because there was nothing else like it. There was the radio, which had commentaries, and they did talk about the game a fair bit, but they wouldn’t have had phone-ins. They didn’t have television, they didn’t have social media where people can exchange ideas very quickly. Its status was equivalent to what Wisden would be to cricket. It absolutely set the terms of the debate, in a manner that it was regarded as the guardian of the game – which has certain problems that come with it as well. It however did recognise and adopted very quickly to its role of a moral guardian.

So, when Imre Hirschl tried to come back to Argentine football around 1962, after being banned for match-fixing in 1943, it was El Grafico who lead a moral charge by saying – no, we can’t have this man in our football, he’s a match-fixer, he’s disgraceful! No magazine can ever have that status or influence anymore, even Wisden now – it’s obviously important and obviously influential – but, it doesn’t have that moral value it did some 30 to 40 years ago.

But in terms of the type of journalism, the idea of trying to place football in context and maintain its awareness, and attempting to understand the cultural implications of football – a lot of British broadsheet newspapers try and do that now. The Guardian certainly does it. The Guardian’s football coverage, though, has changed a lot in the last 20 years, in a way that it has become a lot aware of the global audience. It has specifically tried to reach out to its global audience with its expansion to US and Australia.

On a day-to-day newspaper level, the Guardian does do that. El Grafico is weekly – so the timeframe makes a difference. If it’s a weekly, part of your job is to reflect on what happened the previous week, and when you place that into context with day-to-day journalism, the latter does become a lot more reactionary. The monthly tries to do that, but with a danger of feeling slightly old hat.

Blizzard is a quarterly, so even more. My editors try to address it, but we are aware that between me writing it and printing it, is two or three weeks – we have to make sure that what we put in there can be read a month or two after that – that’s the nature of being quarterly. So, they have to be general themes, you can’t leap on one instance that happened in a game that week.

So, it’d be wrong in trying to force a modern equivalent of El Grafico – it’s not something that looks feasible. But…those general principles of what sports writing should be, pretty broadly, France Football – the French bi-weekly magazine, certainly has that sense of guarding the history of the game. But it’s such a different world, it’s quite difficult to compare.

Jonathan Wilson is one of the most venerated historians of the beautiful game, and the author of 8 critically-acclaimed books. His latest book, Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina is available in stores. He tweets @jonawils

Footnote:

Acknowledgements: Sometimes you can’t make certain stuff up, no matter how well you write, because everyday life has a way of showing us all up by writing a better script. Neil Gaiman is aware of the existence of the author of this article.
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Srijandeep Das

Managing Editor, journalist, writer. Wants to be the very best like no one ever was.