Friday, July 30, 2010

What's driving FFA's reluctance to rally the faithful?

IF any FIFA inspection members paused long enough during their Koala-cuddling whistlestop tour this week to grab a copy of the local edition of English mag FourFourTwo, they would have had to flick a long way back - page 89 of the 92 in fact - to find significant mention of the 2022 World Cup bid.
This is cause for embarrassment, but not on the part of the magazine, which was out a few days before the FIFA team landed in Sydney. Their interview with FFA boss Ben Buckley was so predictably dire the only surprise to me is 442 bothered with it at all. I assume if they had 150 pages, it would have been on 147.
At a time when the non-believers in Australia find excuses why we don't need this tournament Down Under, we require, at the helm of football, an inspirational leader. Someone able, through power of personality, to unify the country behind the game. Or least be bothered enough to have a go at it. Someone with passion. What we need is a suit who talks like a fan. Like John O'Neill perhaps - who saw which way the wind was blowing and gave us Guus Hiddink in 2005. What we have is a suit who talks like a suit, from Vinnies. Who gave us Pim Verbeek.
Buckley's performance at the World Cup itself, when trying to dampen down rumours of Australian team disharmony, but instead turning it into international news, was emblematic. Smiling serenely and avoiding the real questions in text book "look how I've been coached to deal with the media" style he did nothing to make the rumours go away. The only purpose of the whole stage-managed event seemed to be framing Buckley as leader - but it was all style, never about substance. His every word can be found in the management manuals clogging up your local book chain. The jaw is moving but what ever gets said?
I found the 442 reaction to Buckley's latest missed opportunity to raise passions within the heartland interesting. "FourFourTwo spoke to ... Buckley and garnered about as much information as someone with an internet connection and the ability to type 'Australia World Cup' bid into Google." Nice line. Their dissatisfaction seemed to be that Buckley had nothing to say to them. My belief is Buckley just has nothing to say to any of us.
The magazine I edit, Football+, was seeking to do a big feature for our new edition, talking up our World Cup bid with interviews with Buckley and Frank Lowy.
Our Associate Editor, Matthew Hall, requested some face time with the pair in South Africa. When they belatedly responded we were granted, instead, the opportunity to send in some questions via email which they might reply to if they had time. Judging by the fruits of 442's 15-minute hard labour, we made the right decision to decline.
 If the two people charged with spending $40 million of government money couldn't work up the enthusiasm to spruik up their bid and rally hundreds of thousands of committed football fans - those who spent a deal of money buying Football+ and 442 and the other football mags before the World Cup - then why should we be that bothered?
Had they figured that if Bill Clinton was giving interviews about 2022, when not cosying up to Sepp Blatter, there was not really much point wasting their breath?
Soccer Australia, or the FFA as they are now known, have had some, well, colourful people at the helm, and I'm not suggesting Buckley needs to tread down those same dim alleyways. But something more showy, something more alive, something more "Sepp" might not be a bad thing.
I wonder what Blatter makes of Buckley. And our bid. I'd like to ask Buckley about his relationship with Sepp, and plenty more besides. Like what will he do if we lose the bid and the A-League crowds and finances continue to fall this year. But even if he would pick up the phone, I'm not sure he has that much to say.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

From the acoustic coupler Com Games to the Twitter World Cup

I'm sitting high above the halfway line in Durban, with a paper notebook, TV monitor with replays and a laptop hooked to superfast internet line. On one screen I have the FIFA matchcast, giving its running text commentary and, on another, the story header for the running copy I'm filing to The Associated Press. On a third screen is my Twitter feed and on a fourth the Word folder with all the background bio I've prepared on the players.
Far below, on that brilliant patch of green, Australia and Germany are going for each other but there is so much electronic noise and, with having to file a fresh story every 15 minutes throughout the game, I find I'm drawn to what it means on one of the two screens, rather than seeing the action myself.
This was the first Twitter World Cup and it has changed the way millions are now interacting during sporting events.
The Twitter feed works on many levels. There are friends and family from home. There are constant statistical updates from services such as Infostrada and Otpa; there is live, bite-sized, opinion from football literatti such as @sidlowe or @marcotti; there are fans who you might follow but don't know, who give you a quick poll, a mood, like a verbal worm in an election debate. "Grella can't hold ball, #aus are getting killed in midfield #ger #worldcup...".
Perhaps most interestingly, you can eavesdrop into the thoughts of other media people, often rivals, and see the genesis of what they will be writing later for their employers. It also, strangely, brings you closer to people you might have been wary of in the past. Twitter can be getting your message out to a "massive", to promote your employer by linking to your work, but it can also be quite personal too. I 'met' several journos this way this way before we met in person. And I found them funny and smart and likeable before I met them too. As well as after.

I spent six years from late 1990 to post Atlanta Olympics as AAP's track and field writer. There were some people who did that round for the papers who I respected a great deal, but I never got to know them beyond professional courtesy and what I could glean of their personalities from how they were in press conferences or in print.

Twitter, if you follow the right folk, gives you a mass of information, in fact often way too much information. Carles Puyol heads in a winning goal against Germany and, within, a minute, we have two stats companies telling us that it was his only attempt on target in 13 matches at a World Cup finals. Once upon a time, if you wanted such an offbeat stat, you would have needed to keep very good notes. Later, with the rise of stats data bases, you might have been able to search it online if you had the thought to. Now, you just flick a switch and information like this flows in a torrent - at times during the World Cup, Italy's dramatic loss to Slovakia being one such time and Spain v Chile another -  the surge was far too much for the technology and the service melted down.

Twitter has delivered up more information than you need so the danger is you accept what is there and don't go looking for what isn't. Or you don't think enough for yourself, you let the consensus think for you. Look at Howard Webb's performance in the World Cup final. My opinion: he handled a tough job well and the players were shown up variously as crude, unsporting and as moaners. But Twitter's loudest voices decided he was to blame, and the mass blame game started, not as it might have in the past with some comments from players, but as soon as he peeped for the last time.

Twenty years ago I headed off for the Auckland Commonwealth Games, my first "major" event as a sportwswriter. I had just started at AAP in Brisbane but hadn't been there long enough to make their team so took holidays and wrote for APN's regional papers, targetting Queensland country athletes such as Cathy Freeman, and writing under the byline Grant Forster, a name taken from a couple of Brisbane musicians who were extremely important to me in 1990.
I remember the majority of my baggage allowance was chunky sports media guides and a huge wad of paper notes and photocopies - research I'd done from clipping files on the swimmers, athletes and lawn bowlers I would be covering at the event.
My means of filing was a tandy with four lines of text and an acoustic coupler. This was pretty much the setup.

IN South Africa last month, my Acer suffered from charge issues and, a few minutes before having to file running copy every 15 minutes on Serbia v Australia, it gave a blue screen of death and shut down. The biggest problem I remember from the above set up was the rubber rings on the acoustic coupler, which kept coming off if wrongly attached to the public phone you were using. Editing your copy was maddening though - because you could only see four lines at a time. The good thing: most papers had copytakers back then, or at least someone, usually a jealous desk-bound mate, who was happy to take it all down.

I grew up with technology from this very basic point, until the 2003 Rugby World Cup, after which I morphed into Mr Mom. In between those years, Google (and I hear there are other other search engines out there) came to life and life on the road became less reliant on heavy wads of hard copy research.

As a news junkie, back in the live coverage game, I enjoy Twitter. No, that's not strong enough. As with any junkie, I need Twitter. Even when I left South Africa and watched the later games from the couch, I had Twitter there with me in case there was something, like that Puyol stat, I might have missed. Or to chat with people on the ground, to find out what I wanted to know, and not just what others thought I wanted to know.
It is enjoyable and essential, for me. But what I'm not saying is that Twitter is a good thing, just as the 40 smokes a day I enjoyed through my 20s weren't good either.

In 2000, on a night off from the Fairfax Olympic desk, I went to Homebush, as a paying customer, to watch Cathy Freeman win the 400m. It's still the most exhilarating experience I've ever shared with more than one person at a time. And I'm grateful now I got to watch it, feel it and understand and process it my own way, without a Twitter addiction.

Twenty years ago in Mount Smart Stadium Grant Forster could never had envisaged Google or Twitter. The man who was briefly him wonders what is coming in the next 20.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blunt friends, dead friends

Went to dinner last night and the boys were all talking World Cup, of course, having a great laugh. "You didn't have a good time did you?" came a question from the more sensitive end of the table... It wasn't the experience of Germany, work and the circumstances of Africa saw to that, but I wondered why she had had asked. "Your blog wasn't funny like last time." Reality check. And she is right.
Germany led itself to more humour. It was hard finding laughs in South Africa, where you pay someone to "look after" your car in a car park in broad daylight. Where there is obvious unending poverty around the next bend, or behind the next clump of burning bush. Where people are getting ripped off, or shot, by their own... Or you are being warned about holding a phone while walking down a nice middle class street in a country town the size of Ipswich. Where the humour of crowds and the songs that set them apart is nullified with a long loud drone.
Oh, there I go again...
The 2010 World Cup is funnier from back here. I've been on local radio a few times in the past two weeks reflecting on the latest games and stories. The Octopus is much funnier from here. Tim Cahill is much more heroic.
Tumbleweeds have been blowing through the blog. I remember four years ago, we came home and kept right on joking. We bought Harry Kewell's used drink bottle in an eBay auction. Bloody eBay, it never did turn up (nor did I ever send the 1 euro, I guess). We joked right on about Ashley Cole and ZZ blowing his top and headbutting Materazzi.
This time it was -  I guess because I'm in the middle of a 5000 words tournament wrap and a 160 page magazine IS - work.
The find memories this time will be all about the game. And Bob.
Two weeks ago I was at South Africa v Uruguay and my laptop presented me with the 'blue screen of death" just as I was coming to the end of a Diego Forlan story. It wouldn't restart so the boss of AP's coverage at the game, Bob Millward, sat patiently while I tapped it all out again on his machine, well after midnight.
Today I found out, from Twitter, that Bob died of a heart attack in his hotel room after the semifinal two days ago. I've known him 15 years but only worked with him a few times. Died alone in a hotel room working at the World Cup. There's nothing funny in that.