LEO MESSI'S GROIN AND THE GLAMOUR OF JOURNALISM

You think this malarkey is all beer and skittles?  Think again.

THERE are occasions in a gal’s life when she just can’t say no. Jose Mourinho, Ipad2, weekend in New York, In Bed With Maradona.  Temptations were made of this.

Sadly Jose has not yet been on the blower, and neither Apple nor the Big Apple look likely, so thank goodness for IBWM.

The chat-up line went something like this: Write as much as you want on anything you want. Ah, sweet nothings; I’m such a sucker. (I’m also a sucker for a semi-colon, a grammatical hiccup widely regarded as a deadly sin in tabloid world. Which. Is. Why. I. Go. For. A. Full point. Usually.)

If the world was going to be my oyster, then I needed to produce a pearl of wisdom, and that’s when my troubles started. It’s all right for you lot. Regular visitors to IBWM don’t need telling that some very knowledgeable people are making insightful, informed contributions on every footballing subject under the sun.

I was looking for a eureka moment, a subject that would be familiar yet subtly different, a subject that would capture the imagination, a subject like, say,  Lionel Messi. Yup, the best player on the planet, the next Maradona in fact, would do nicely, especially as I once interviewed the heavenly Leo.

Interview might be a slight exaggeration, considering I was on my knees at groin height (his) and I don’t speak Spanish. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. The Messi-ah was talking to journalists, I am a journalist. THIS COUNTS AS AN INTERVIEW.

Watching my mate (hey, fame by association and all that) weaving his way round Real Madrid’s defenders last week brought the memories flooding back. So, for those reading in black and white, let me draw a picture in glorious technicolour.  Germany. 2006 World Cup. I was there for The Sun, a late call off the bench a couple of weeks beforehand and with what was called a “floating role”.  This is what sports desks say when they have no idea what to do with you because everyone else has a “proper role” and they didn’t think the budget would stretch to sending you too.

In effect I had to plonk myself somewhere in the not inconsiderable landmass of Germany and be prepared to go wherever I was required. My starting point was Munich, my starting match was Australia v Brazil, a carnival of yellow and green, fair dinkums, stunning Latins and a sensational introduction to the biggest football show on earth.  Next stop, Frankfurt and a brothel. To anyone who thinks journalists swan around in luxury and glamour, my main gaff in Germany was bang, slap in the middle of the red-light district near the main station.

No big surprise, therefore, to find a couple of ladies of the night loitering in the foyer, touting for custom. It turned out they’d been turfed out of the rooms for the duration, as enterprising hotel owner worked out he could make a lot more money from people *staying* there rather than *dropping in*.

Five-star prices for a filthy, smelly, putrid sauna of a bedroom with a filthy, smelly, putrid bathrom. No curtains in either, so the flickering street lights provided an epileptic-inducing distraction to my sleepless nights in sweltering temperatures. Plus I had to get undressed in the dark.  Still, I was at the World Cup. I was being paid – for my writing! If I’d had a quid for every quip about staying in a house of ill repute, I would be blogging this from my yacht in Monte Carlo.

Next up, Holland v Argentina in Frankfurt. It is hard to imagine now but, back in 2006, Messi was only a small step up from a Theo Walcott. I have just re-read that last sentence and it needs to stay there, for reasons of irony.

These are the facts. Messi was the boy wonder still to make the breakthrough. He was an unused sub in the first game, against the Ivory Coast, and he stepped off the bench in the 6-0 thrashing against Serbia, making one goal for Hernan Crespo and scoring himself.  Messi instantly became the youngest Argentine to play in the World Cup and the youngest scorer in the tournament. In other words, he was hot news.

Not, however, as far as I was concerned. That night in Frankfurt, the Oranje were in town. English-speaking Dutchmen. Now, with one or two exceptions, Holland’s footballers are happy talkers and good talkers.  Edwin van der Sar, Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie, Khaled Boulahrouz, Andre Ooijer, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ryan Babel and the sought-after Wesley Sneijder.

My remit was obvious. Write a match report and then dive down to the mixed zone to ask one of the above about England/Wayne Rooney and, maybe, get Sneijder or one of his team-mates to admit that he has always harboured ambitions to play for Manchester United/Arsenal/Chelsea – delete as appropriate.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the mixed zone is the civilised name given to the bearpit that is the interview arena after a match.  In theory, players walk past journalists  and stop to speak when asked.  In theory.  On this particular occasion, Messi started the match - for the first and only time in Germany. He came off after 70 minutes in a 0-0 draw, which was rendered meaningless because both sides had qualified for the next stage anyway.

Down in the mixed zone the barriers which separated players and press looped back and forth like intestines. South American journalists were milling – and they sure know how to mill.  I did not require an Argentine player, I needed a Dutchman. Preferably Wes to issue a “come and get me” plea to Manu.  (Apologies for gratuitous use of tabloidese but that’s where I come from).  I looked for a quiet corner. In intestinal terms, somewhere round the appendix. A phalanx of very loud South Americans gathered in Gallbladder Close.  Messi appeared. Now this kid is small. Really titchy. He started to make his way round the guts of the mixed zone and all hell broke loose. Noise, cameras, pandemonium.  Me? Not bovvered.  So Leo started his meander through the intestines and came to a halt...at the appendix. In front of me. He looked at me, smiled in that shy way of his and waited as a Latin American tsunami deserted the gallbladder.  Crash, I was forced to my knees. I couldn’t move. I was worshipping at the feet of a footballing God. And he turned out to be a God who fancied a chat.

Messi started gabbing. Life story, ambitions, favourite film. For all I know he told the world how he dreamed of playing for Manchester United/Arsenal/Chelsea (delete as appropriate). He might have dumped on Rooney.  As I kneeled, trapped and not understanding a word, I could see tracksuit bottoms and trainers walk past. Van der Sar, Kuyt, van Persie, Boulahrouz, Ooijer, van Nistelrooy, Babel and the sought-after Sneijder.  Eventually the pushing, shoving, shouting South Americans ran out of questions or the saintly Leo ran out of answers.  The crowd dispersed, I clambered to my feet, the mixed zone as empty as my notebook.

And everyone still thinks this job is easy.

Follow Janine on twitter @JanineSelf

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