Between a rock and the Eagles

Tuesday 14 October 2014

/ by Colin Udoh
Not an easy job covering these lads

There are many who have the idea that a reporter hobnobbing with international football players is all fun.

Well, for the most part it is. Not a few would jump at the opportunity to sit on the same table with top stars, exchange jokes and anecdotes, share seats on a plane or even be one phone call away from an exclusive quote.

But it is not exactly smooth sailing. Pitfalls abound aplenty. One wrong step, one misplaced word in an article, no matter how well intentioned, and it all hits the fan. Spectacularly. With football players, there are no half measures.

And there is always the underlying suspicion, simply because of what you are. That fear that an unguarded word could end up as embarrassing, or costly, public fodder.

And that is just from a player point of view. For the reporter (such as I) there is the unending internal temptation to censor oneself. 

Winning the battle against self censorship, and it has to be won again, day after day, story after story, is the biggest victory of all.

One on which I pride myself continually.

And to decide, of the rich lode of information, what and how much of what is heard to put in the public domain without breaching confidence and trust, is a second.

That, even more so in this age of social media when little 140-character snippets can be almost as good, if not better than, a 1500-word piece of penmanship. The possibility of unwitting missteps are immediate and limitless.

I've been there. A fair few times.

Around 2004, I was at the airport in Athens when I got a call from Joseph Yobo. We chatted for a bit about any number of things. At some point during the conversation, he told me about approaches he had received from a number of top clubs in England and how he would have joined them but for Everton's inflexible stance.

Naturally, and somewhat naively, I assumed he wanted me to publish.

A few hours later, innocent little me had that story up online, lavishly quoting the defender. Unsurprisingly, it got picked up internationally. The reaction at Finch Farm, as could be imagined, was less than thrilling.

Not quite a day later, Yobo called me again. This time he was hopping mad and spitting fire. Not only had he been forced to discountenance the story, he had also been slammed with a fine.

It took a while to repair the damage.

Similarly, during Vincent Enyeama's trial with Bolton Wanderers, he came down with a bug, and while we were talking, he mentioned that it could be malaria. 

Again, I ran with it. Enyeama called me a day later. His reaction was not quite as colourful as Yobo's, but it was there. And it is possible that one report might have contributed in some way to that deal falling apart.

More recently, Chidi Odiah sent me to Coventry for almost six months because I 'dared' to rate him a '4' after one game in which 5 would have been overtly generous. 

The first two are honest mistakes, and represent the balancing act that needs to be done in filtering all of the backend information one comes across. Like a young player a few years ago after one away game talking about how he loves tossing salad. 

News of the World (if they hadn't gone kaput) couldn't pay me enough to part with that player's identity. Okay, maybe Jack Bauer could probably torture it out of me, the renegade.

That, however, is easy to deal with. What is not so easy is that things like that third example. Staying objective knowing that unlike other writers who have the safety of distance buffering them from the team, you have to face these young, sometimes irrational, men hours after picking their performances apart. 

But it is a job that has to be done. Our allegiance as reporters is to the truth. Clear. Unvarnished. Ungarnished.

Especially on a bad day. Like last Saturday in Khartoum. The Super Eagles performed poorly, and deservedly lost.

So when I tweeted that they did not deserve to be in Morocco, it was the truth. A mere 1 point from 9 tells the story more eloquently than I ever could.

So I was a bit taken aback when Mikel Obi stopped me as I boarded the plane and made to take my seat to slate me for saying that. And for tweeting that the result was a disgrace.

For a moment, I could barely find any words. That's how stunned I was. I didn't expect any player to even question any criticism following that game. Earlier, I'd even advised a few to block out whatever would come and focus on answering on the pitch on Wednesday.

Emmanuel Emenike and Austin Ejide were sitting close by, as was Vincent Enyeama, Nosa Igiebor and Ogenyi Onazi.

I felt affronted. And I let rip, reminding him how much stick I take for defending the team, including but not limited to ignorant folk even suggesting I receive gratification.

But I made it clear nothing could colour a bad performance. Or consistent bad results.

We had a back and forth for a few moments. He insisted that being so close to the team, I was in a good position to appreciate their difficulties, including the inability to train on the pitch the night before, the bad state it was in on match day, and the discomfort of playing on artificial turf.

In effect, I should have tried to be kinder in order to help sway public opinion in their favour. Not tweet that they didn't deserve to be in Morocco.

My response was to ask why the bad pitches almost always seem to afflict only the Super Eagles. Congo barely trained in Calabar, and still came away with a win playing on the same bad surface. 
And perhaps the world class pitch in Cape Town was also averse to 3 points? Finally, I asked a simple question, if South Africa hadn't beaten Congo away, would they even be talking about going to Morocco? Would they have deserved it then?

That ended the argument somewhat, but Mikel would not go down easily and called Ben Alaiya, the team's Media Officer over, directing him to put out a statement blaming the condition of the pitch.

I warned him that excuses would not go down well with the public and he would be better served saying nothing than blaming the pitch. 

There was more. Including a vitriolic assault on a former captain of the team and a few choice words for other people. But in his own interest, it is best I keep those to myself.

His fear of flying took over as the pilot began to taxi and as the flight took off, he was gripping both armrests so tight his knuckles were threatening to split the skin.

Four hours later, just before the flight touched down, and after some relaxing sleep, we were a little chummy again, as I did my best to take his mind off the plane's descent by engaging him in conversation about his seatbelt, with his white-knuckled hands torturing the armrests again.

Although some tension remained, the storm had blown over somewhat.

It's still a fun job. It's still a tough job. And it's still one where the biggest battle is the balancing act that rages inside every single day.

Still want to trade places?

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