Do they mean us?

Thanks to the influx of foreign players, British football now attracts an increasing number of journalists from countries which previously paid it scant attention. We cornered three of them – Ronnie Reng from Germany, Marie-Jose Kleef from the Netherlands and Italian Filippo Ricci – to find out what impression it had made on them

When you first came to England, what was the one thing that most surprised you about football here?
Ronnie Reng That it’s still conducted in a childish manner – and I mean that in a positive way. Both in the way they play and how the supporters watch the game. One of the first matches I saw here was when Dortmund were playing at Man Utd. About half an hour before kick-off I thought I had the wrong day because there was nobody there. The fans didn’t show up until five minutes before kick off. I think that’s a good thing – they clap if they like something or they boo and then they go home. So it’s still pure entertainment. And it’s also played in a childish way. Players want to attack all the time, they don’t want to stop and think, and the supporters clap if somebody really hoofs it forward or if someone makes a great tackle, even if it would have been more sensible to look up and pass.

Marie-José Kleef The amount of tackles in a game is unbelievable. This season I was at Leicester v Aston Villa and the only thing happening was people tackling each other. There weren’t two passes in a row. The players were never waiting for the right moment, just pushing all the time.

Filippo Ricci For me it was Chelsea v Liverpool and to find that the away fans were just one row away from the press box. When people stood up, the jour­nalists were asking if they could sit down – and people did. Having no fences in the stadiums and having op­posing fans in the best position to see the game was very strange. In Italy they would be stuck in some cor­ner surrounded by police with the worst views of the game. 

In general, how do the fans here compare with those in your countries?
MK The chanting is just horrible. It makes the hairs on my neck stand up. It’s so close to the pitch. People with red faces screaming “Le Saux takes it up the arse” for 90 minutes and no one does anything about it. That constant chanting wouldn’t be accepted in Holland.

FR It’s much worse in Italy. The first thing they do is insult. They never chant to support, always to attack the opposition. Whenever a player has fallen down, the first thing you hear is: “You must die.” And it’s normal people, not just the hardcore. The songs here are nice in comparison.

People here think the atmosphere is worse now…
RR It’s true that if you go to a game at Arsenal, for example, it will be quiet for long periods and that has something to with the audience changing. Especially in London there’s a certain percentage of people who go there almost from a tourists’ point of view.

MK The audience is more mixed here too, with older people and women and young children, which is nice compared to Holland, where it’s almost all youths.

Are there things you expected to find at football here that you haven’t seen?

FR More people at the games. The stadiums are small, it’s always sold out. England still has the highest number of fans at matches on average, but perhaps this is because Italy has a few smaller clubs that get lower crowds than here. But here there are only 35,000 or 40,000 for really big games, because the stadium capacities are so small.

MK But the difference is that here they go to crap games as well. In Holland fans will go when their team is at home to Ajax or Feyenoord but often not when they’re playing just another smaller club.

RR My prime example of this – which I tell people at home and they can’t believe – is when Man Utd were playing Juventus in the Champions League semi-finals. Liverpool had a league game with Leicester the same night, with nothing at stake, but Anfield was sold out for that. People in Germany would stay at home and watch it on the TV.

MK Even in the Worthington Cup when there might be two second-choice teams playing, the crowd will still be there. The Dutch players I’ve spoken to really like the fact that they get support at every game.

RR There also seems to be a great sense of history and tradition. Supporters will tell you, “You know, in 1963 we beat Tottenham 3-0…” I find this amazing. A lot of supporters in Germany would struggle to know the first XI of their team. It’s also odd when you hear supporters talk about their team being “a big club”. With Tottenham, for example, you look and what have they done? Nothing, relatively.

Have you found a big difference between here and the rest of Europe in what people know about football in other countries?
MK They might know a bit about Italy, but English journalists don’t seem all that interested in the Dutch or German leagues. I was amazed that no one had heard of Ruud van Nistelrooy at the time that he was going to sign for Man Utd. He’d already been playing fantastically for PSV for a couple of years by then.

RR I think that in smaller countries where the league is not too strong and the best players go abroad, people will be aware of what’s going on elsewhere in the way they wouldn’t be in England or Germany.

FR It’s the same in Italy. They’re interested in Chelsea because they have Italian players, or Liverpool or Leeds because they’re playing Roma and Lazio, but otherwise there is no real interest.

Is the technical standard here getting better, or is it as bad as you thought it would be?
RR It’s certainly better than I thought it would be. We grew up thinking the English just run and kick the ball and don’t think. I brought over a lot of these prejudices. Now I’m absolutely convinced that the game here is better than in Germany because it is played at a higher pace, there is still a certain amount of fairness in that a lot of players don’t try to cheat, they don’t pass back as much and the technical level is as good as anywhere in the world.

MK Last night I was watching the Dutch league on TV here – it’s on late at night, I don’t know who watches it – and it was completely different. It’s entertaining as well, but different. Both countries could learn from each other because in Holland the pace is really slow, it’s just passing and waiting for players to create something.

It seems that no matter how many foreign players come in, the game tends to be played the same way.

FR This is why I don’t like Chelsea. I think they are losing the English spirit, which is a pity because I think it is a good thing. Even the way they call for the ball, it’s done in more than one language.

RR But if you look at the Old Firm games, it seems to be the foreign players who get involved the most, as they’re trying harder to adapt to what they see as the typical British passion. And a lot of players really get sucked into it. I asked Didi Hamann about what is still English at Liverpool and he said “everything”. They have horse racing on the TV at the training ground and you’re supposed to bet on it and you join in because you feel you have to adapt. Markus Babbel said that the first game he played in there were six or seven incidents where he thought “OK, that’s a foul” and he stopped playing, then suddenly realised the referee hadn’t given any­thing. So in the second game he just joined in, starting kicking people too. I think the core of the game here is still English.

FR The refereeing I find really strange. A lot of things would be a foul anywhere else but here. I think this must be difficult for players to adapt to. But I have noticed that players react differently when they’re play­ing in European cup games where they know that referees will whistle more.

What are the biggest differences in the way football is reported?
FR The bitterness of the tabloids is incredible. Today they all found pictures of Eriksson pulling a strange face and made jokes about it. That wouldn’t get done in Italy. The Eriksson case is probably the worst example because there was nationalism in­volved. He’s “a loser from day one” in the Mirror, even though he’s won championship and cups in Italy, which no English coach can claim. Then I see the same journalist, Harry Harris, on TV saying that some other journalists have an agenda against Eriksson, but not me. I heard Adam Crozier saying: “I don’t think any­one will be happy if England lose.” But I thought, “Yes, several people will be really happy.” Crozier knew this too because he repeated it twice.

On the other hand I think sports writing over here is very knowledgeable compared to Germany. I bumped into Berti Vogts at the England v Argentina friendly and he was lecturing me about how German sports writers could learn from the English – and I think he had a point. In Germany now it’s all gossip about which players are getting on with one another.

MK Also they get so much space here. There are things you can do which you’d never get a chance to do for Dutch papers. Most Dutch reporters don’t read books but the writers here bring in all sorts of subjects into the reports.

What about the journalists’ knowledge of tactics?
MK They value players on results. Here they think Hasselbaink is a fantastic player but it’s torture to watch him really, because he can’t play. But because he scores, everyone thinks that he’s a fantastic striker. With Michael Owen the story now is that he isn’t scoring, but they don’t see what else he does.

FR I think what is lacking is a wider angle. They just judge the games on whether they were fast, with lots of attacking and goals. But sometimes there are other reasons why a game can be interesting which they don’t pick up on. I saw Chelsea v Aston Villa. To me, that was the best game of Chelsea’s I’ve seen, but just because they won 1-0 with the help of “Calamity James”, the story was it was a terrible game.

RR I was at that match and I thought it was a very boring game. You need some pace in a match.

FR But the papers didn’t get the point that Chelsea played very well tactically. It’s like the question they are asking now about Eriksson, will he stick with his ­4-4-2? But Eriksson doesn’t play that, his teams play 4-5-1. It’s a big thing. This is the coach of the national team, they should know how he likes his teams to play.

How does the relationship between the press and the clubs compare?

MK The clubs here have far too much power. They just say no and they say it all the time. They have a press conference at Chelsea and they’ll say you can ask two questions. It’s incredible.

FR I applied for a press pass for Eriksson’s press conference when he came here after leaving Lazio, and they said OK, but you will be the only Italian journalist. And we will give your phone number to the other Italian journalists to give them the quotes. The journalist from the Corriere dello Sport had to phone them and say he was from a Sunday paper, because it publishes seven days a week, and they said “Oh, a Sunday, OK”.

RR It’s to do with English football culture not looking outside England – they’re not interested in newspapers from other countries. In Germany, if somebody rings a club from the Sunday Times they say “Oh great” and they want to talk to them. Here they say: “What’s the name of the paper? Never heard of it. And we’ve got no fans in Germany anyway.”

MK At most clubs I can’t get accreditation anyway, whereas at the FA they say: “We love foreign papers – but you can’t get in.” They’re very polite.

What about access to the players?
RR Before Germany played the US in the World Cup, I wanted to go and see Kasey Keller, then at Leicester. I rang the club and spoke to the press officer, who said: “Oh no, he’s not in, but he’ll ring you first thing in the morning.” Of course he never rang back, and this went on for four days, so in the end I found out Kel­ler’s number and rang him up. He said he’d be glad to do it, but that I had to ring the club and tell them I was going to meet him. He said he once agreed to meet a jour­nalist from the US but when he came down to the training ground, they just threw him out.

MK It’s the clubs, it’s not the players who are doing it. They just won’t let you talk to them. I always tell the press of­ficers, “Just let me talk to the player”. They say, “He doesn’t want to talk to you”. Then, when you do get hold of them, the players says, “Of course I’ll talk to you”.

FR I was trying to talk to Patrick Mboma recently at Parma. They said, look, it’s very difficult on this day and that day because we’re very busy and so on, but if you call him and arrange to meet him, we have no problem. That’s it, it’s easy. If you want to do it of­ficially, at the club, you have to pass through them, and that’s OK. But if you want to meet them at a restaurant, it should be nothing to do with the club.

MK In Holland all the players have to talk to all the journalists. Every Friday, in the bar at the club, all the players are there and all the journalists can get in. And the atmosphere is that they’re on the same level, more or less. Whereas here, when there’s a player talking, the journalists are sitting there lapping up these banal cliches, laughing at every stupid joke they make.

The stereotype of players here of course is that they’re not really bright. But whose fault is that?

RR I think that has something to do with the fact that there has never been a culture of talking to the press here. If you see David Beckham on television, you can see how insecure he is and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. Players from abroad are much more used to it and they take it in a much more natural way.

MK Also they’re really wary of what they’re saying. When Hasselbaink has a press conference here, he’ll hardly say anything, and the journalists will be satisfied with it. “I’m happy to be here, I hope to do my best,” etc etc. And they’re all happy with that and they go home and write their piece. They’re not actually asking them any questions.

Maybe they know they won’t get any answers?
MK But they will. He’s someone who really will talk.

RR It’s a vicious circle. Because the press get so few quotes they’ll jump on every little controversial quote and blow it out of all proportion. And when the player reads that, then he says “OK, I’m not saying anything any more”. Your colleague from Corriere dello Sport, Filippo, when he’s interviewing Italian players, he says “OK, now we’re talking for the Italian press”, and then, because he writes for English papers as well, he says, “OK, now give me some quotes for the Eng­lish press”. Because that’s the only way the players would agree to it.

MK But they’re getting more cautious about that too, the Dutch players. Because if they talk to me, someone in Holland will translate it and send it back to England.

FR The players always tell you: “Be careful what you write in Italy, because it will come back very soon.” This sort of thing happens in Italy too, of course, because the big teams have 20 journalists at training every day. And maybe only one player is put up at the press conference. So even if they don’t get much from him, they have to write something, and it’s often wildly exaggerated. But at least they have a press conference every day. Here, it’s once a week. Incredible.

MK And the journalists are really grateful to the clubs for doing this. It wouldn’t be accepted in Holland.

FR When the Vieira-Mihajlovic thing happened, I called Arsenal, for La Repubblica, and said, look, we need to make this interview with Vieira. They said, OK, but not now, you can call in three or four days. I said, look, it’s a daily paper, in three or four days the story won’t be interesting any more! It seemed to be hard for them to understand that.

MK I really think it’s because the journalists in England accept this sort of thing. I wanted to talk to Raimond van der Gouw. Reserve goalkeeper for Manchester United. I couldn’t make an appointment to speak to him for over a month. Reserve goalkeeper! It’s ridiculous.

What do the players think about the treatment they get from the media?
RR I think most of them have to get used to the idea that here you are educated not to talk to the press. Whereas in Germany they use talking to the press to raise their standing in the team. So that’s quite difficult, to suddenly realise you shouldn’t talk to the press, that it’s seen as an enemy. In Germany they’re not exactly in the same boat, but they’re kind of partners, or at least they get treated in a fair way. A lot of players who came over knew about the reputation of the English press, it’s generalised in Germany as being vicious and so on. So a lot of players were very afraid. When Karlheinz Riedle was at Liverpool, someone from the Mirror approached him to do an interview, and Riedle said– and he was serious– yes, we can do an interview but I want to bring my lawyer with me.

MK But they also say there’s a lot of respect for them from the press, maybe too much. A lot of them say, even when I play crap, I still get an “8” in the paper. Journalists aren’t as critical about their performance. In Holland, if you play a crap game you’ll be crucified.

What’s your impression of the television coverage here?
FR You know what’s strange – that they show all four leagues. This con­cept of 92 teams. The Third Division – they have games live! You know when you’re watching Sky and they’re an­nouncing all the games, and maybe it’s Liverpool v Manchester United and then this… Supercrap! It’s amazing. It’s nice that in the newspapers they give space to all the divisions. That’s very different from Italy.

RR I don’t want to seem like I’m defending England all the time, but for me Match of the Day is a prime example of the way it should be done. All the games and just a brief discussion of each one afterwards. Whereas in Germany they will focus on one nasty tackle and talk about this for ages.

MK In Holland I think they used Match of the Day as an example, but we hardly have any pure football programmes. So it’s a football match, then skating, then tennis. We have nothing like Football Focus or On The Ball, just talking. That prog­ramme on Sky when they watch  the games live on the screens, that’s fantastic. That’s some­thing Dutch people should see.

FR There’s something sim­ilar now in Italy, but in a slightly different way, with a studio aud­ience of famous supporters like writers or actors. And they send someone to the stadium, like they do here with Chris Kamara or whoever. They can’t show any action of course, but they have a commentator on the touchline during the game and they shoot him from the pitch, running up and down the line. Now it’s the most popular programme in Italy. In the evening there’s a one-hour show, quite like Match of the Day, but after that it’s a mess. There are three sim­ilar private channels, running shows where they talk about football for three or four hours. I prefer it here, where it’s more simple. Apart from the fact that Match of the Day is on Saturday night, when everyone is out.

MK The commentaries are also very slick and commercial, especially the Sky games. It’s entertainment. It doesn’t work that way at all in Holland, it’s just a match, not this whole package.

FR Here they never shout, there are these long pauses, then they say one name. In Italy, they shout for nothing, it’s more like South America. They fill up all the spaces, I don’t even know the English words to translate the kind of things they say…

RR I think the German commentators aren’t as knowledgeable as they are here, certainly compared to some of the BBC ones. I prefer it here. They focus on the football, whereas in Germany it’s more a case of oh, we spotted one player elbowing another so we’ll show it from five different angles, rather than talking about what they’ve done tactically.

What are the things that players from your countries complain about most or like about England?

MK They’re always really, really surprised about the drinking. Even if they know it before they come, they just cannot believe what goes on. They go on a training camp and every night they have to drag some of the players back to the hotel because they’re completely out of it. They just cannot believe that these are professional footballers earning £40,000 a week.

FR They say training is completely different. They don’t train here – but they are fit. And they run twice as far. All the Italian players say they can’t understand it. The English players don’t like to train, they never do double sessions, and maybe the smaller teams only train three or four times a week. Yet they run much more than us, they play much more than us. How can this be possible? They also say, if someone is injured, when they come back they are ready to play for 90 minutes. An Italian player, if he’s out for, say, three months, when he comes back he thinks he can play for ten minutes. It’s a different mentality.

MK In Holland they spend a whole session on one aspect of the game, one sort of pass or something. Here the training is like a match. It’s not on situations in a game and it’s not on technique.

RR Most players I talk to really like the freedom over here. Not just that they only train for one hour a day, but also to be able to go out at night. Compared to Italy or Germany, it’s wonderful. You can go to a restaurant and the most people will do is come to your table and ask for an autograph when you’ve finished their meal, or offer to buy you a drink to show how happy they are that you’re here.

FR Whereas in Italy everyone comes and sits at your table…

RR And in Germany they would come up and tell them they shouldn’t be out at 11 o’clock at night and they’re going to tell the manager. That’s what they really love.

From WSC 169 March 2001. What was happening this month