No one expects scintillating Socratic dialogue, or even normal reportorial discourse, at a World Cup news conference. But even by the tournament’s relaxed standards, the opening remark to Russia’s coach the day before his team played Spain last week was unusually obsequious.
“I wanted to give you a small present,” a Russian reporter declared, springing to his feet. Opening a plastic shopping bag, he handed the coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, what appeared to be a porcelain figurine of a girlwith a disproportionally large head. “It’s called ‘Success,’” the man said, proudly.
It was a weirder-than-usual moment in the routinely weird ritual that is the World Cup news conferences, a daily piece of amateur theater where the questions are often repetitive, the players are generally bored, the coaches find 50 ways to say nothing, and journalistic neutrality repairs to the nearest bar, breaks open a beer and cheers for the home team.
Most professional sports have similar exercises, of course. Coaches and players are dragged out at some point — before a game, after a game — and forced to answer questions from a mob of reporters about strategy, preparedness and, inevitably, how they feel about whatever has happened or is about to happen.
“In some case your greatest challenge is not to show how you feel about the question,” said Bob Bradley, who, as coach of the United States men’s national soccer team at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, was asked at a news conference how the team was coping with the recent death of Michael Jackson before the final.
“It was said in such a serious way, as though everyone on the team was in mourning,” he said in an interview. “I went around the block trying to be diplomatic. I tried to be respectful of the question and not to say, ‘This is not the time to be talking about Michael Jackson.’”There are plenty of international tournaments with plenty of potential for missed cross-cultural signals. But the World Cup is unique in having so many participants from so many countries all appearing in the same forum, with the same ritualized regularity, match after match. After a while the news conferences, with their long-winded, multipart questions, their laughably imprecise simultaneous translations and their rigid, time-controlled formats, begin to seem like parts of one giant whole, their details spilling and flowing into one another.
Reporters at Argentina’s conferences wanted to talk about Lionel Messi. Reporters at Portugal’s wanted to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo. Reporters at Iceland matches wanted to talk about whether the coach is still a dentist. But beyond such idiosyncratic details, some common themes have emerged from Russia.
The news media is, in theory, meant to maintain a cool, analytical distance from the subjects it covers. Sure, you might be from Japan, or Brazil, or France, but, in the purists’ view, a reporter is supposed to behave like a citizen of the world of soccer for the purposes of reporting on a match.
Not so at the World Cup, where it is perfectly fine for reporters from a particular country to wear team jerseys to the stadium; to break into applause when a coach enters or leaves the room; to clamor for autographs or selfies; and to ask questions that are variations on the theme of “How great are you?” It is not uncommon to hear a questioner refer to the national team from his or her country in the first person plural.
When Colombia lost to England after a penalty shootout in the round of 16, for instance, the first three questions to José Pekerman, the team’s Argentine coach, were from members of the Colombian press corps.
“Despite you being knocked out — congratulations for the football that Colombia has played tonight,” the first questioner began.
“First of all, congratulations for getting this far,” the second said.
“You made us dream again,” said the third.