The First Twitter Tournament
In Euro 2012, newspapers were very rarely first with the news as social media came into its own
"Yeah we're really happy with the way the lads FUCK OFF!!! in the second half when Sweden scored we didn't panic FUCK OFF!! just kept our heads and FUCK!! OFF!! Welbs took his goal so well he made it look NO!! FUCK OFF!!"
The tape of Theo Walcott's mixed zone interview after England's 3-2 Euro 2012 defeat of Sweden in Kyiv makes for interesting listening. Albeit, it should be pointed out, it isn't actually Walcott telling everybody to fuck off in between offering an expertly anodyne summary of England's rousing Group D victory. In fact, Walcott is such a pleasant, archly well-mannered young man that even while the reporter in front of him is — following well-established professional protocol — elbowing a Norwegian TV presenter in the chest and yelling "FUCK OFF!!" he still looks like he'd struggle to find it in himself to swear at anyone.
It is a rare ability to continue speaking in calm, well-modulated sentences in such circumstances and perhaps Walcott might harbour realistic hopes of a post-football career in parliamentary politics or supply teaching. More likely, though, he's just used to it. Scenes like this are not uncommon in what is a precarious, high-stakes business, every gobbet wrung from an England player the end point of a gruelling process of travel, expense, forward planning and plenty of basic hard graft. Careers hang — or, at least, have in the past hung — on the ring-fencing of this basic product, the quotes pieces with star players that are still the staple of print media football coverage.
And yet at Euro 2012 there was still something unexpectedly poignant about the sight of the grand old battle-hardened English newspaper pack — of which I was fortunate to be a minor part-time member — huddled in the bowels of some new-build stadium: elbows primed, besieged on all sides, and defending to the last the unwritten protocols of reporting the news to vigorously persevered print-run deadlines, like Sid James and Roy Castle settling down to eat a six-course colonial lunch amid great plumes of shattered plaster, chandeliers shelled from the ceilings, the marauding Burpas machine-gunning the gates outside.
Because things have definitely changed. If Euro 2012 demonstrated anything away from the pitch it is the way in which the central relationship between reporter and spectator is now fundamentally altered. Not that this was immediately obvious at the time. Instead there was a sense throughout the tournament of a mass groping for the correct superlative, the precise, the apt measure of footballing ultimacy for an unusually absorbing month of football. What was it, exactly, about these Euros?
Even before Spain's bravura performance in the final, one newspaper had already gone straight for the jugular with "the greatest tournament of modern times". Uefa had trotted out its own party line: the largest, the least casually racist, the most furiously drunken fan-zone populations in recorded history. But none of these seemed to chime precisely with whatever it was about Euro 2012 that seemed so startlingly novel.
Perhaps the real difference was simply in the sheer level of reverb. This was undoubtedly the most involved tournament of all time: the first real Twitter tournament, the most aggressively blogged, the most widely commented on sporting event in the short history of mass new media opinion overload.
If Euro 2012 seemed unusually vibrant it was in part because of those echoes, the resonance of a million instant verbal salutes, a million demands for a retweet for this fascinating piece on the Czech Republic's mildly innovative use of the attacking long throw-in. No wonder the men at the centre of this opinion whirlpool — paid media with its full-time convictions, its editorial framework, its deadlines — might have looked a little besieged. There is a simple reason for this: they are besieged.
At Italia 90 Pete Davis wrote the landmark book All Played Out, shedding light on the rise of the football press as a self-aware and aggressively interventionist entity. Coupled with the subsequent newspaper-led assault on Graham Taylor, it had become clear that when it came to England the press wasn't just content with reporting any more. Instead the press now wanted to gate-crash the main stage, to stalk the touchline, a player in its own right.
There is a pleasing synchronicity to the fact that 20 years on it is the press itself that has the air of being hunted. Menaced by declining revenues and tried and convicted on a daily basis by the unfenced self-publishers of the internet, it is now the football press that must face its inquisitors, obliged by decorum to explain and equivocate and bite its tongue. Being the England football manager is no longer the impossible job: we're all fairly sanguine about that now. But reporting on the England football manager — well, that looks like a pretty tough gig from here.
It turns out it is the last 20 years of football journalism that have been the historical aberration here. Prior to the late 1980s covering football was a one-person job. A lone brown-suited man with a notebook would share plane trips, hotels and sun loungers with England players on tour. It is only in the course of football's furious expansion into a mainstream "leisure product" that the itinerant mob-handed pack has become a fixture, diffuse beneficiaries of football's fiscal explosion, and fortunate to be in the right place at the right moment to experience en masse the fascination of following the national football team through the nine England-flavoured international tournaments that have followed Italia 90.
It has been an excellent period to choose to become a sports reporter. But how many British newspapers are really going to be bankrolling this same portable feast in the years to come, as the rise of new media and the decline of old transform decisively the notion of how their readers consume their football?
Albeit there were no obvious signs of a diminution of influence — in fact quite the opposite — as England's players appeared on the pitch in the Donbass Arena to play France in their opening Euro 2012 match. The Donbass has a wonderfully central low-slung press box, a multi-tiered section of high-spec thrones close to the halfway line. And three days after the tournament opening, there was instead a palpable sense of relish among the assorted chief sports writers, senior correspondents and austere executive scribes at finally getting the chance to watch some actual football after the peripheral delights of reporting on preparations in Krakow.
Admittedly in the end the most notable aspect of the night was the general lack of atmosphere in what was perhaps the most low-key match of the tournament. During the second half the players could be heard quite clearly shouting to each other as England wilted back into their fearful one-bank-of-eight defensive formation, one particular howl of pain from Scott Parker after being rather gently hacked down from behind echoing with chilling immediacy around Eastern Europe's grandest glass and steel football dish.
Perhaps the 47,400 spectators present were simply fiddling with their phones instead. It is a mark of the disjunct between the live and televised experience that the match was also the first really notable example of footballing Twitter-power at Euro 2012, an early spike in what would become a consistent background timpani. According to Twitter's own figures, Euro 2012 was the most digitally discussed sporting event ever, with a record 15,000 tweets per second published during the final. There were 873,000 mentions of Spain during the tournament, with England second-placed in the popularity stakes on 849,000 (no figures are given for the proportion of these concerned solely with expressions of spittle-flecking fury, head-wringing anguish and so on). Cristiano Ronaldo was mentioned more than any other player, although again of 268,000 Twitter references no figures are given as the exact ratio concerned solely with mocking his excessive upper body musculature or attempting to describe the precise consistency of his densely-pomaded hair.
Of course, it is very easy to take all this far too seriously. Twitter is in the end just so much chaff, the most highly evolved expression yet devised of the basic human need to gossip, moan and generally bullshit. It will not last: something else will emerge, something even more beautifully simple and persuasive. Plus of course mainstream journalists, while apparently menaced by this new technology, are among the current big Twitter-hitters, stockpiling their own follower armies.
But still, there has been an impact, a sense of basic chiselling away. Instant, often furiously abusive accountability has had an effect on the way many journalists write. For some there has been a tightening up, a curtailment of adornment, an awareness of the mocking chorus of pedants and malevolents that shadows every piece. The fact is nobody works well under constant browbeating suspicion and there is a genuine unpleasantness in the way the mob can round on its chosen targets. At least one recently-installed broadsheet football reporter considered giving up the career altogether in his first week, shocked at the level of abuse directed his way, before cautiously raising the subject with his fellow writers and being reassured that this is all entirely normal.
How did this happen? And is it ever going to stop? Perhaps it is simply an effect of opening up journalism to all, the swishing back of the curtain that previously shrouded the professional writer in mystique. The key attribute of the reporter has always been his access. He is there. You are not. He brings you his experience, funnelled back from some gloom-shrouded footballing outpost and accepted as a kind of interpretative truth.
Except, this privilege has now largely dissolved at the top level. These days everybody has access, via ever-widening blanket television coverage. The reporter has access to players, but then so does the fan at home via Twitter and via the instant news wrap of the internet. Moreover, the viewer at home and the man on the train with his mobile minute-by-minute have access to a conversation that happens beyond the grasp of the reporter urgently honing his print-deadline copy in the press box, with opinions dissected, cast aside and resurrected with fevered haste. And so the newspaper man appears bang on cue 90 minutes later, star-jumping in through the front door with his flowers and his bottle of wine, his box-fresh 900 words, just as everybody else is leaving by the back door.
It must be said that if this is the way things are heading few would mourn the disappearance of some of the more arcane practices. For example there is no doubt new media has undermined the primacy of the dreaded 'huddle'. For years it has been common practice for journalists at press conferences to hatch their own mutually agreed 'line' on whatever it is they've just witnessed, parcelling out a version of events that, on the plus side, is most likely to get itself in the newspaper and, less appealingly, is both a form of internal self-preservation, ensuring unanimity and no awkward questions from editors the following morning, and of writerly laziness. There are few tasks less demanding than the simple quotes piece, which often skates along simply on the novelty of its own virgin obiter dicta.
Hence the elbow-jabbing fuck-yous and the roping off of the Dictaphone-thrusting mob, as exported once again to the media zones of Euro 2012. This is the meat of football newspaper coverage, a form of journalism at which tabloid newspapers in particular excel but which is increasingly undermined at major events by the bandit presence of outsiders, and the deadline-free rhythms of the internet. Often press conferences are tweeted or broadcast or covered by foreign writers who operate outside the parochial huddle. Embargos — a mutual agreement not to publish material before a certain time or date — have oiled the wheels of quote-journalism. But to those wedded to the notion of digital media embargoes increasingly look rather dinosaur-ish, an artificial brake tied in to old-school print deadlines and often ignored by news wires and websites, leading to occasionally violent internecine disputes.
First — and to date alone — among traditional newspapers the Guardian recently declared itself a digital-first medium, turning its back on the traditional rhythms in favour of a rolling, web-based news operation, which will inevitably involve the trimming of embargoes, the overwriting of the old behavioural codes. There is an unseen friction here. Careers ride on such matters and voices and fists have already been raised around the subject, press-conference bans threatened and even — drama! — the odd laptop swept off a desk in intimidatory rage.
At which point it would also perhaps also be appropriate to dim the lights, insert a CD of sombre piano music and announce in a croaking voice something else many have been wearily predicting for years: the lingering death of the match report. Poor old match reports. You were where it all began, rising up out of the soup of primordial football journalism, a sole record of events provided by a pork-pie-hatted man with a train ticket and a notebook. Over time the report evolved into the central hub of all football writing, to which generations of writers have added their mediations on raking passes, cynical fouls and fulminating drives from fully 30 yards.
At times during Euro 2012 the match report almost felt like an irrelevance, as is often the case with the grand shared televised event. The difference now is the sheer level of alternative analysis. By the time that most newspaper reports of England's final group match against Ukraine had been published the ghost goal incident involving John Terry's goal-line clearance had been so widely Twittered, YouTubed, parodied and generally over-digested, it seemed to have been put to bed entirely. It is perhaps the first time an instant match report has looked quite so dog-eared, so prematurely aged by the rolling digital conversation.
On the other hand, there are aspects of the experience of being there that remain irreplaceable, and which are perhaps also in danger of being lost in the rush to disregard the match reporter. For example, only inside the stadium was it really obvious that Danny Welbeck's lovely drag-back finish for the winning goal against Sweden was entirely intentional, evident from the wider view of his body shape, the swiftness of his movements. Twitter disagreed, but Twitter was wrong. Similarly, the atmosphere within a ground cannot be accurately conveyed via television, while a really decisive tactical analysis remains incomplete without the broader vision of the spaces that appear away from the action, rather than simply those captured by the framing of the camera.
Perhaps the answer to this is simply to resist the disorientating confusion, to be unafraid of offering a more impressionistic, less formal kind of reportage. Football journalism will continue to be reconfigured by the competing gravity of these orbital voices, but there are many brilliant new things to come out of this altered state. For a start, it is easier than ever before to emerge from beyond the traditional avenues and find an audience simply through a talent for writing, a distinctive voice or a communicable football intelligence. New media gives equal gravitas to the novice and the grizzled multi-tournament veteran. If you're good enough, people will read you. Take away the anxiety and the animosity and this is above all an exciting process, a reordering of a century-old industry that is no doubt long overdue.
For England's footballers Euro 2012 ultimately congealed into a rather exhausted stasis. After the early encouragements — absence of complete humiliation; rousing defensive negativity; Wayne Rooney not sent off — things unravelled rapidly into a familiar mixed bag of physical willingness and technical inadequacy, captured best over 120 minutes of high alert caution-football against Italy in Kyiv. So much so that perhaps the only really novel developments around England belonged to the press-thronged periphery. Before the quarter-final at the Olympiyskyi Roy Hodgson could be seen talking happily to Italian journalists, waving at his old Uefa friends, smiling his way through training and appearing entirely at ease as England's tournament wound down. This is of course how it should be for a man newly installed in a job that remains at least semi-impossible. And for now it is instead the trailing pack who return from a major tournament looking if not exactly menaced, then perhaps a little uncertain, elbows raised, ears tuned to the competing voices, still fighting an ever-diminishing corner.
This article appeared on Episode Forty Two of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.