LESSONS FROM SLOVAKIA...

The English media's reaction to interviews from international managers & players veers wildly from hyperbole to scathing criticism, could lessons be learnt from the honest approach taken in Slovakia?

I’ve been in Slovakia for eight years now. I like the country and I enjoy following its football. Poor crowds and the appalling condition of a lot of the grounds don’t put me off. Occasional hooliganism and the ever-present suggestion that the domestic game might be riddled with corruption cause greater misgivings but still don’t stop me going along and paying my money. The rewards can be found in things like low admission prices, the fact that you can drink within sight of the pitch should you so wish and the opportunity to spot talents that people whose focus is exclusively on the ‘bigger’ leagues are likely to miss.

Another thing is that football people – coaches, players and officials – often say interesting, even fascinating, things. Take the most recent rounds of international games. As Fabio Capello was blaming England’s disappointing home draw with Switzerland on ‘tiredness’ and ‘lack of energy’, while insisting that ‘we still have quality players’, Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss was giving a brutally honest assessment of his team’s unimpressive 1-0 win over Andorra. ‘Why (did we find it so difficult)? Why? Why?’ asked Weiss. ‘Because when a striker can’t even put the ball in an empty net or convert other golden chances, it’s not going to be easy. When Šebo has six chances and Vittek, Hološko and Šesták two each, you have to score more than one goal. But we didn’t and we should take our rose-tinted glasses off.’ There was much else besides, but you get the idea. The national team manager in this country, unlike in England, isn’t expected (perhaps isn’t even allowed) to hide his real feelings behind a series of innocuous sound bites.

Other examples? We can go back to last year’s World Cup. The English press did have something to get their teeth into then in the form of John Terry’s now infamous press-conference after the Algeria game. But what did this really amount to? That Terry still considered himself a leader within the squad, that he and other senior players had met to discuss the team’s (lack of) progress and that there might be a role in the starting line-up for Joe Cole. Yes, it was more than the usual blandness but it hardly deserved the descriptions – ‘remarkable revelations’, ‘insurrection’ and the rest – accorded to it, even by the broadsheet media.

Much juicier stuff was coming out of the Slovakia camp. After the team had conceded a last minute equalizer to New Zealand in the opening group game, Stanislav Šesták was quick to blame his captain, Marek Hamšík, for failing to close down the cross that led to the goal. The Slovak daily Šport responded, not with headlines like ‘remarkable criticisms’ or ‘striker points finger at skipper’, but with a small feature on the inside pages where a panel of four wise old men of Slovak football gave their considered judgments on whether a player should publicly criticize a team-mate for on-field mistakes. Days later, the artless Šesták cheerfully reported that Weiss had told him that, if he broke rank to the press again, he could pack his suitcase and go home.

Weiss himself, though, provided better copy than any of his players. He walked out of one press-conference following Slovakia’s 2-0 defeat to Paraguay in the second group game, having taken exception to a question from a foreign journalist about his team-selection and tactics. At a later gathering, a Slovak reporter asking a similar question was threatened with a punch in the mouth, leading to the rather bizarre spectacle of Vladimir Weiss Junior ushering his father out of the room and attempting to restore some diplomatic order to the gathering. Later, after the shock win over Italy which took his team into the last 16, Weiss Senior was on the pitch in tears and, by means of a microphone, expressing thanks to the Slovak fans and love to his wife.

In England, a coach indulging in such actions runs the risk of some merciless lampooning.  The country’s media does complain when football people trot out meaningless patter yet simultaneously appears to require that they do nothing else. Take Arsène Wenger, for example. He has to give interviews after every match, even when (such as at Birmingham in 2008 and Stoke two years later) players of his have sustained serious injuries as a direct result of opponents’ tackles. When he expresses his true feelings about the incidents, he is subjected to the verdicts of the columnists and risks being called a prima-donna or worse. You can disagree with what Wenger said on those occasions, even deplore his double-standards, but if he has to have a microphone thrust under his nose in such circumstances, it seems unreasonable to expect mere diplomacy.

The Slovak media did, of course, make a show of condemning Weiss’s aggressive behavior but the over-riding impression you got from reading their accounts was that they were actually grateful for the copy. The journalist who was threatened never received a direct apology; though Weiss did eventually – months later – quietly admit that his selection and strategy for Paraguay had indeed been flawed. In fact, criticisms of his own coaching decisions are a fairly common feature of Weiss interviews; it’s just wise to wait for him to make them himself.

Weiss, it’s fair to say, is a ‘character’. He is emotional, unpredictable and always, always worth listening to. I believe, however, that he comes across as even more interesting because the media simply allow what he says to speak for itself, unmediated if you like. When he gives an interview to a publication like Šport, it is not hyped as ‘sensational’ or ‘exclusive’. It is merely reported, usually in simple question and answer form. There are no interjections from the journalist, no descriptions of how the coach answered the questions or analysis of those answers. The reader is left to make up his or her own mind about the revelations presented.

And, while Weiss is indeed rather a maverick, he is by no means the only Slovak football figure who offers tasty quotes. There was a controversial league game between Žilina and Slovan Bratislava two months ago which ended prematurely, with the score at 0-0, after a Žilina fan, apparently infuriated by a series of decisions which had gone against his side, vaulted the perimeter fence and shoved the assistant referee. Confusion reigned initially as home players attempted in vain to persuade the officials to allow the game to continue.  Captain Zdeno Štrba was in no mood for diplomacy when he spoke to reporters afterwards. ‘I tried to talk to (the assistant) but he was mad. There was something in his eyes. It was as if he’d been taking something. He should be ordered to have a blood test,’ Štrba said. In response, the assistant threatened Štrba with legal action.

Dreadful shenanigans perhaps, but undeniably fun when you’re following the game from a discreet distance. Again, where is the English equivalent? Yes, Alex Ferguson (amongst others) criticizes officials but, after all this time, we know that everything he says is part of a carefully calibrated act. There can be little doubt that Štrba, by contrast, was speaking from genuine, uncontrolled emotion. There is a paradox here, I feel. One reason Slovak footballers and coaches feel they can get away with these things is that the game here is not constantly billed as being of life-changing importance but actually keeps quite a low-profile. Fans (the few who turn up) get passionate enough about it in the grounds but death threats aren’t issued over it. Matches are not described as part of ‘grand-slam Sunday’, as being worth 90 million pounds or otherwise over-hyped. In its turn, this fosters what seems to me to be a healthy climate whereby interviewees say what they think without worrying about whether their words will have extreme consequences. The occasional excesses of people like Weiss or Štrba are the price the game pays for that.

I’m not a football journalist but, if I was, I’d find many advantages to covering the Slovak game as opposed to its English counterpart. The working conditions, of course, cannot be compared. I recall listening to a Guardian podcast a few months ago where the participants were waxing lyrical about the facilities provided for reporters at grounds like the Emirates Stadium. Those covering Slovakia v Andorra, by contrast, were made to wait for their team-sheets to be photocopied at a nearby shopping-centre after it was discovered that the printing machines at the Pasienky Stadium weren’t working.

Still, interviews with Weiss, with his emotion, straight-talking and flashes of temper are surely preferable to the stage-management of someone like Ferguson or the blandness of most other England-based coaches. The prospect of the press-conference would even make a game such as Slovakia v Andorra in the pouring rain worth sitting through.    

You can read more from James here 

 

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