Saturday, May 1, 2010

Good Soccer Writing is Fueled by Love (Duh)

Sorry for the long pause (I think longest in AMSL's history if I'm not mistaken).  I was working.  Like last Saturday, when I performed at one of those concerts professional musicians are forced to attend once or twice a year.  Far removed from the regular stuff—baroque, period performance in a familiar venue with familiar faces who know when to clap and when to sit silent—I ended up in some Coptic church in Richmond Hill performing Coptic music with a mix of Coptic and classical musicians.  It was one of those gigs you walk into initially and think, "here we go, the things I do for money etc."  Hip, professional cynicism.

Except it turned out to be a very enjoyable concert.  The audience, clearly unused to "live classical performance," clapped with abandon throughout, overlapping the ends of pieces with no regard to concert etiquette. They gave standing ovations before intermission.  Before, in the middle, and after, they gave us food, gifts, and then more food.  Afterward the MC, who looked no more than twenty-five years old, said he had "never experienced anything like it in his life."  Standing there singing this strident, Eastern-sounding Coptic religious music, miles off course from where I've been working toward my entire professional life (Bach oratorios and Handel operas essentially), I was happy because the audience was happy.  That happiness was reflected back at us through every beat and every measure. On the way home, I realized that simple enjoyment is often missing in the high falutin' world of classical performance, where music is a protected relic and performers museum workers.

I've been busy with some other work too, some of which involved reading Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle's excellent new soccer book, The World is a Ball.  I was privileged to sit down with Doyle and ask a few questions about it, and in passing he mentioned how increased soccer coverage might improve the quality of sportswriting in North America.

Traditional newspaper sportswriting, whether in New York or Madrid, is diversionary—you read the Sports Section to calm nerves in the waiting room or steam past breakfast table fights with your family.  The American sportswriter has an easier time of it because American sports seem designed for objective analysis. Basketball, American football, baseball, hockey are as collapsible as computer programs.  Measured in quarters, yards, ERAs and players point averages, entire games get crammed into minuscule "box scores" laid out side-by-side on a single sheet of newsprint.  The actual sportswriting is meant to reflect this total epistemic supremacy—with adjectives cut, sentences guillotined, and any romance, indeed, any actual love for sport on the part of the writer (not a prerequisite for the profession) paved over like potholes by a judicious editor, the Game Report is ready for publication.  Hand it over dear, I have a train to catch. 

Soccer meanwhile bleeds out in all directions; statistics, like possession or shots on goal, are of little help when held up to an actual ninety minute encounter.  Writing about soccer therefore requires a pair of eyes and a subjective mind, which is why no two newspaper soccer match reports are alike.  Writing about soccer is also deeply challenging for the hack entrusted with five-hundred words and ten minutes to submit her report for copyediting.  European and South American sportswriters long ago got around this problem by developing a romantic shorthand heavily dependent on a rotating carousel of similes and adjectives and a set format—open with a pithy lede, describe the decisive game deciding action, and work through the match from the beginning.  At its best, it produces some the best writing on anything ever [Glanville quotes].  At its worst, it devolves into lazy cliche (so many examples abound I hesitate to replicate them).    

Still, despite their differences, American and European sportswriting follow the same template.  The Sports Section is to be read over coffee and tossed out on a subway platform, divulging information on missed live matches with as little fuss as possible. 

So then the Internet.  Did the revolution happen in a neat little consecutive time line stretching back to 1995?  You and I both know that it didn't.  I'll try and paraphrase Clay Shirkly as best I can here, but essentially you ended up with a situation where anybody coudl writ wheterver the fucj they wanted, press publish, and have it available for anyone with an Internet browser.  No editors, no deadlines, no content restrictions, no fact-checking, and not really much money, even for the big boys, even to this very day.

So what did this mean for sportswriting?  Well, I could be lazy and say, "it made newspaper journalism obsolete."  Wrong.  I could also say it suddenly opened up sports writing across the board to a new frontier of exciting, daring, weird, insightful personal writing about sport, but I don't know to be honest.  I don't read a lot outside of the soccerverse, but are there's for every American professional sport?  All I know is soccer, and I know that it's worked very much according to the same schema as the infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of typewriters.  Everyone's doing it, so the quality thankfully rises to the top.  But the quality right now, I have to say, is exemplary.  Look at if you want an idea of what I mean.  I happen to agree with John Doyle that soccer is leading the way in innovative sportswriting. So why this sport and not snooker?

It helps that soccer is a statistical blank slate.  It's the world's game, it doesn't align itself with an exclusive set of interested nations, like baseball or cricket.  I love touchlines, you love the Africa Cup of Nations, I like the J-League, you like John Carew's weird hair. If no two newspaper match reports, then there are countless interpretations of the ongoing league and international dramas in football, all unique, all personable, but always with the kernel of universal recognition.  

The other ingredient is love.  Traditional sportswriting is all about diversion.  The sports section comes with the paper, you can either take it or leave it, but if you take it, you're not meant to hold on to it very long.  The Internet puts the onus on the reader to search things out.  Soccer sites are made for people who love the sport, and most writers, who make shit money from this sort of thing, write out of love.  You can smell the soccer sites that run on page impressions a mile away.  Like us performers at the Coptic church, soccer writers might not be working their dream jobs, but it's enough to write about the sport and be appreciated for it.

Anyway, I already know what you're thinking:  "Jesus Christ, this guy fuck's off for a month and then comes back writing about the same old stupid meta internet sportswriting shit.  Slapping himself on the back again, what an arsehole."  Hold on a minute, as Sid Lowe might say.  We've got a World Cup coming around the corner, and that means a lot more outside traffic for nichey soccer sites.  I think by and large they're going to really like what they see.  So with that in mind, I'm going to be giving out some long overdue props to my partners in crime, and will be providing site by site reviews and recommendations in the lead up to the World Cup.  A way to give back and say thank you.  Yes, it will be industry back slapping at its worst, like a standing ovation before intermission, but the point will be to provide a guide to soccer outsiders as to what they should read ahead of South Africa.  It is a totally personal list, and will focus on more individual blogs, but my aim is to provide a starting point so that we don't end up writing in an echo chamber forever.            




5 comments: said...

good to see you back

Jeremy said...

As interesting as always. Always happy to see you talk about two of my favourite things, music and soccer.

Gareth said...

Your post reminded of reading (and being horrified) by this story:

Great post, as always.

dundasfc said...

The lazy cliche and football writing go together like...

Good post. I've always wondered what the differences are between a match report (the most important element in soccer writing IMO) from Japan and a match report from Spain.

The regional differences would be interesting to study. Too bad I'm not fluent in any language other than English...

Colin said...

Nicely done, Richard. Glad I finally came back to read this. Had it mentally bookmarked since you posted it. I enjoyed your exploration of football as a sport that demands subjective thought. A simple and passive glance at the results doesn't tell the story as it would in other North American sports.