The pressing matter of access

As if it wasn’t bad enough that media training now removes every sliver of interest from the comments of most players and coaches, the increasing lack of access means we soon won’t be allowed to talk to them at all.

This week I decided that, rather than covering the Swedish team that was preparing for two vital World Cup qualifiers on my doorstep, I’d take an overnight train to Denmark.

The reason for doing so is simple – the Danish media setup gives me – and by extension everyone who reads what I write – better insight into their team.

That’s not to say I didn’t follow the Swedish team’s preparations closely. Having had an interview request turned down (again) by Zlatan’s agent, I watched the press conferences live online as the usual non-sequiturs were trotted out.

By not being there, I didn’t miss anything – but had I not gone to Helsingoer on the Danish coast I would have missed a whole lot.

In contrast to Sweden’s ridiculously anal attempts to control every utterance, the Danes are, as always, a breath of fresh air.

At precisely 0915 on Wednesday morning, every player in the squad made his way through the hotel lobby, where the press corps had assembled with their cameras and microphones.

There were no crash barriers, no ropes, no sinister men with earpieces wandering around.

“Just grab whoever you want and talk to them,” said Lars Berendt, press secretary to the Danish FA.

There were no subjects that were off-limits – the Danish FA seems to have taken a remarkable policy decision to let adults talk freely among themselves.

I took Lars at his word, and first up was Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s playmaker and a recent signing for Tottenham Hotspur.

Christian knows how to play the media game, mixing bland comments like “it’s all about the three points” with quips about Daniel Agger being top scorer only because he takes the penalties.

In amongst all this was some interesting things about how Denmark were actually creating a lot of chances, but not scoring, and that without rectifying this they wouldn’t be going to the World Cup.

Next up was Nicklas Bendtner, Denmark’s equivalent to Zlatan in terms of media profile and no stranger to both positive and negative headlines.

I’ve interviewed Nicklas before, but his first reaction when you speak English to him is to always expect a stitch-up. “Is this about the national team?” he asked as he trailed me across the lobby to where I had parked my camera. “Yes,” I answered, meaning it for once.

The mistake we often make as journalists is to treat the people we interview as demi-gods, putting them up on pedestals and then complaining when they behave like divas and refuse to lower themselves to speak to us.

To me they are no different (except perhaps in terms of bank balance) to someone you’d  do a vox pop on the street with.

Nicklas took the mickey out of my camera tripod being too small, and I hit back with it being big enough for Eriksen and Tom Cruise. The ice broken, we got on with our respective jobs.

What followed was an enjoyable interview that addressed his return to the national side after a six-month ban for drink-driving, Denmark’s problems scoring goals without him and whether or not he had anything to prove to Italian fans after a goalless loan spell of his own at Juventus.

Bendtner answered as he always does – confidently, clearly, sometimes deflecting the question but never backing down from it.

To cap it all off, I interviewed Daniel Agger, who was much the same as Bendtner – straight answers to straight questions, even about his club situation.

On the train back to Copenhagen I started transcribing the quotes into a Bendtner interview and a contribution for a preview of the Denmark-Italy game. A shorter piece based on an Eriksen anecdote will appear before the Malta game.

Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, the reasons for Ibra’s media shyness became apparent. Zlatan has released an app, which promises to give a unique insight into his life.

That news was, of course, broken by a press release shortly before he was due to address a press conference. Needless to say, the app was brought up several times.

Having played their part in getting him to where he is, journalists are no longer needed in his world. He is now his own publisher.

Zlatan having his own channel to reach his fans is not an issue – he can do what he likes.

But what is a problem, and a serious one for the Swedish FA and Paris Saint Germain, is when he answers mixed zone questions after the 2-1 victory over Austria with the pithy response:

“Download the app.”

That the Swedish FA has slowly but surely throttled access to players – all the while producing more of its own material – is an adaptation of what club football has been doing since the start of the Premier League era.

The Swedish FA are not alone. The English and Irish FAs have been doing it for years, as controlling access is seen as a way of exerting control over journalists, and thus what they write.

Journalists are not innocent in all of this either. The press, in particular the more rabid commentators of the sports and tabloid press, have long made a blood sport of twisting quotes, bending them out of context and creating controversy where there is none, all for clicks and newspaper sales.

While the press corps has a lot to answer for, the solution is never to cut off access to those that fans want to hear from most – but nor is it to provide them with a stream of carefully-chosen content meticulously filtered to remove any semblance of objective journalism.

The future is to have a continued open dialogue, between journalists, fans, players and associations, to decide the ground rules and stick to them.

Only in an open society can we properly scrutinize and examine clubs, teams and players, but for that to be done we must have trust.

Both sides can start by examining themselves and seeing if they really are doing their utmost to objectively satisfy the needs of the people who are ultimately the only ones that matter – the fans.

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