so you want to be a soccer writer?
Stay in the game long enough, doing whatever it is that keeps you afloat, and you’re bound to get the email – how do I become a soccer writer? How do I make money off my website? They come from kids and adults, from established bloggers and newly launched dreamers. They come from honest voices trying to find their places and those less so, who say it never meant nothing until of course it does (after trumpeting self success when after a story gets picked up in a few places, after re-writing someone else’s news, after trying to sell ads, after praying for SEO gold, after finding someone slipping up, after using the biggest, easiest to find nail to drive them into the ground while building a pedestal for yourself… “tip your editor here.”)
Before you fire off that e-mail to your writer of choice, read the following essay by Brent Latham about his experience with what was supposed to be his year, the year (every four years), in which opportunity again knocked for the American soccer writer.
Forced From Home
by Brent Latham
Kano, Nigeria. October 2009
Northern Nigeria, like the deserts of New Mexico or the plains of Texas, stretches on for what seems like forever. Except northern Nigeria isn’t like those places at all. The packed Peugeot station wagon headed north to Kano, with me and seven other passengers inside was my first clue.
As an experienced African correspondent – I say experienced only because two years in Africa can count for more than most other places in this business – I had the foresight to pay a few extra naira to secure the front seat, so I didn’t have to make the long ride piled on top of three others behind, or crammed into the third row that replaces much of the luggage area. High occupancy on the four-hour ride means more income for the driver, and a lower fare for everyone. I did, however, have to deal with the inevitable breakdowns which frequently befall such well-traveled machines.
The first happened conveniently about halfway through the trip next to a roadside restaurant – a makeshift way station where I browsed Muslim texts, featuring alternating pages in Arabic and Nigerian English printed in a misaligned typeset replete with spelling errors. The final breakdown came just outside Kano. The taxi refused to go on. After four hours we wouldn’t quite make our destination, but the rest of the passengers seemed more than content to have made it that far, and went about searching out alternative means of transport into town. I, less confidently, did the same.
I flagged down one of the fleet of passing motor scooters for hire. “Take me to a cheap hotel,” I commanded the driver, as if I had any idea where I was or was headed. He must have taken me for a missionary — about the only type of sane, light-skinned foreigner one might expect to find in those parts — because we were soon at the Baptist Guest House. Not so cheap by Nigerian standards, at $16 a night it fit the bill, even if, with only occasional electricity and a daily bucket full of cold water to bathe, it could scarcely be mistaken for the luxurious surroundings you might associate with an international soccer journalist on assignment at a FIFA tournament.
The fact is, there aren’t any luxury hotels in Kano. Not as Sepp Blatter seems to understand the word. You’ll probably have to take my word for it though. For most, despite some rich history and enthralling scenery, the northern extreme of Nigeria is not at the top of the list of inviting tourist destinations. But FIFA found its way there last year. As for journalists from abroad, I alone followed. But FIFA brought its people to Kano.
For the under-17 World Cup, the federation of international football association’s deep pockets helped turn at least one hotel into something quite passable. FIFA staff, no matter how junior, have certain standards. Needless to say Blatter wouldn’t be showing up. His visits to Nigeria, a country ravaged in 2009 by civil unrest, severe gas shortages, and serious crime problems, were limited to the truly regal hotels sequestered behind wide security perimeters and available to only the most economically endowed of diplomats and businessmen on their travels to the capital city of this, by many measures, the poorest country ever to host a FIFA World Cup at any level.
In the leafy suburbs of the city, the Prince Hotel would have to do for the FIFA staff relegated to Kano for a few weeks. A sprawling complex dotted with gardens and a pool, it had been completely refurbished for the occasion. In FIFA terms, that means it was turned into an impenetrable bunker, the staff doubled or tripled, and an assortment of luxurious menu choices and amenities shipped in from elsewhere. Along with FIFA officials, it was the temporary home to the visiting teams.
Ask the questions and you get few answers. I couldn’t determine who paid for the upgrades, but someone spent some serious money. Which may help explain why my abrupt arrival on the back of a scooter aroused suspicion from the large contingent of guards barricading the entrance.
My driver quickly found himself staring down the barrel of a Kalashnikov. I stepped slowly off the back of the motor scooter on which the two of us had delicately perched, and showed my tournament credential to guard.
“You are from FIFA?” he asked, with no small amount of irritation, as he pushed his weapon to one side. I nodded, conscious that no distinction was likely to be made between someone actually from FIFA and another light-skinned foreigner with a tournament credential.
“But you come on a motor scooter; were you lost,” the now concerned guard asked, with growing curiosity amid remnants of skepticism. After all, no matter appearances, someone affiliated with FIFA could have no business riding around town on the back of a motor scooter, the principle means of public transit in much of Nigeria— an economical solution in a country that produces a considerable percentage of the world’s crude oil but has not one refinery at which to turn it into coveted fuel, or “foo-ell,” as most Nigerians call it while lamenting its constant scarcity, as they bear the hours-long wait to get some.
Puffing thick black smoke, weaving at high speed through traffic, straining against the weight of two fully grown men, motor scooters use considerably less gasoline than cars, making them the most practical, if not the most safe or comfortable, means of transportation. For 40 or 50 Naira (about 10 cents) you can get between just about any two points in Kano. So that’s how I got to the Prince hotel for my interview with Wilmer Cabrera, the American under-17 team coach.
There was no room for a freelance journalist there among the FIFA delegates and visiting teams; and though I don’t know how much they might have charged, I know I could never have afforded the rates had there been any free space at this new luxury hotel on the threshold of which I now stood trying to persuade the guard of my mission: to interview the American coach for ESPN. All that work for an interview few of you would even be able to find, buried beneath news of the Premier League and Barcelona’s latest title quest.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala.
That’s the tagline that runs below my occasional columns on Soccernet. Thirty eight words that suggest much, but confirm little. Writing about international soccer from exotic locales does sound like a great job; it’s probably no surprise I get plenty of emails asking how to be like me. Most are notes from smart college kids clearly destined for good things. I sometimes struggle with how to respond, without taking the wind out of their sails.
Rather than confirming that I’m living that life, I prefer to tell them that I still share that dream. Covering soccer for a living, specifically American soccer, is something I set my sights on doing when I arrived in Africa a few years ago, with the World Cup on the horizon. Of course it was never a coincidence that soccer would have to come second for an American reporter in Africa.
News coverage, sports or otherwise, is a business; the market demands it that way. We have enough trouble just covering soccer at home, so coverage of the game in Africa is understandably a virtually non-existent market in the U.S. — one which I spent a lot of time trying to create myself. I managed to find some assignments in the recently expired year of African football. But then, I suspect, there weren’t too many back home interested in my reports from that under-17 World Cup in Nigeria. Or the under-20 World Cup in Egypt. Or even last year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa.
So if I traveled Africa covering American soccer, it was less about immediate economic return and more about willpower and long-term dreams. For those young journalists with whom I correspond, the dubious economics of this job is almost always enough to dampen their interest. But it doesn’t end there. Just getting where you’ve got to get to is sometimes hard enough, much less sitting down next to the daily bucket of water to start writing, hoping to write enough to recover the costs of travel, and maybe have a little left over on top. After that, you write. Hopefully well.
Latham’s room at the Baptist Guest House
Tecun Uman, Guatemala. August 2009
I took a round about route to El Azteca. Not far from the start of my journey, I found myself rafting across the Suchiate River, moving west from Guatemala into Mexico, with six undocumented migrants. Once a Central American crosses that river, he’s out of his territory. There’s no turning back from the stigma of the undocumented. I, on the other hand, was just there to cover the story.
The night before the border crossing, in the courtyard of the safe house, just yards away from the banks of the river on the close side of the unknown, a handful of migrants shared their versions of a common storyline. At first their words came tentatively, with an understandable amount of suspicion. So I brought out the heavy artillery — the tool that has helped gain the trust of a range of characters of varying affability, stable and otherwise, from Guinea-Bissau to Tanzania, Argentina to Nicaragua. When the conversation turns to the game we all love, even those with the darkest secrets to hide tend to come out of their shells.
“This will be the Catrachos’ year,” declared a Salvadoran, his eyes lighting up at the thought. (Long gone are the days when Salvadorans and Hondurans wished ill on their respective national teams.) That tattooed teenager from San Salvador, who flashed a bright, golden smile as he identified himself as a gang member headed back to L.A. after his third deportation, would turn out to be right. The Hondurans around the table were less optimistic. They had suffered through three decades without a World Cup.
My assignment was to document it all for radio, and those words caught on tape would be indispensable. So I recorded those voices — ranging from assured to frightened — as each spoke about soccer and their travels, so similar to and yet so different from mine. While they ventured north in search of a slippery American dream, my round about route was taking me towards another.
Crossing The Suchiate, by Jacquelyn Martin. NPPA 2nd prize.
After we crossed the river the next morning, we all went our separate ways. The rest headed north via what route I’ll never know, as I made my way a few blocks uptown to the official border post, where a suspicious official bombarded me with questions. Tons of drugs and hundreds of undocumented workers with fake passports and stories pass through his post each day. But his stark frown at being deceived once more turned slowly into a curious smile as I stubbornly persisted in proving my intention of following such an improbable route to El Azteca. Of all the stories this border guard must have heard from undocumented migrants, drug runners, smugglers and worse, it seemed the story I was spinning was among the most unlikely he had yet been told. But the truth of it was that there’s an airport in that small city just across the border, and the flight to Mexico City from there is much cheaper than from my home in Guatemala City. If I could keep my costs low enough, I might be able to cover this match and not lose any money.
“But you say you will cover the game for Voice of America,” the official, finally piecing together the disparate facets of my convoluted assignment, asked. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to fly from Guatemala?”
That evening in Mexico City, I was invited for a guest appearance on Fox Sports Latin America. As I rode across town in the luxury car they had sent for me — just one more conduit on a long list moving me closer to my goal — I was overcome for just a minute by the flurry of contrasts of this life as an American soccer commentator. The drive across Mexico City is a long one though. Regaining my composure, I struck up a conversation with the driver. We talked about the upcoming World Cup qualifier. I was all dressed up and headed to the TV studio, so he wouldn’t have known to ask about the unique struggle of the American soccer writer compared to the considerably more esteemed Mexicans he works with daily. Much less would he have known to consider those migrants I had shared part of my journey to Mexico with, as recently as that morning. While mine continued in this luxury car, they were lost in the Mexican night somewhere to the south.
I spent the week in Mexico City. I jumped through any number of hoops to secure an interview with Edgar Castillo, who had just made his decision to switch his national team allegiance to the U.S. But I never found anyone willing to pay me to write about it. I spoke with the youth directors for Cruz Azul, Tigres and Pumas about recruiting Mexican-American youth talent. They had plenty of things to say about youth development in the U.S. And I still have plenty of unused quotes in my notebook about the dozens of Mexican-Americans developing in the Mexican club system — some of whom are part of the new under-20 cycle. I did what I could, but I never quite broke even from that Mexico trip. At least the radio stories on immigration covered most of my expenses.
Like most writers, I suffer from an unusual, perhaps self-defeating obsession with veracity of description. I sometimes like to call myself an American international soccer commentator. But lately, I’ve been wondering if that’s accurate.
“Brent, are you going to South Africa? Because we’d be interested in taking some pieces.
Sincerely, your editor.”
In the months leading up to the World Cup, those emails came from the usual suspects, and from editors with whom I seldom have contact. They were not offers to help out with the costs of getting there, or existing in an inflated economy in South Africa for a month or more. But the World Cup is a big deal, and for once America’s news sources are looking for American soccer stories, rather than needing to have them rammed down their throats.
But the answer was a quick. Not this time. I didn’t add the reason. I don’t have any more money to lose as an American soccer commentator.
It’s worth noting I’m not the only one in that boat. The soccer journalism profession in the U.S. is decades behind the game. Not in terms of quality — you can make that argument if you want to, but I won’t. No, the U.S. is lagging behind in soccer journalism because, like the American soccer players of the early 90s, American soccer commentators don’t have a league to play in. There are currently 28 teams between MLS and American soccer’s second division. I’d be surprised to learn that the number of full-time, salary-earning soccer journalists in the U.S. is much higher, particularly if you count only Americans. A few of the best, most tenured hold the handful of full-time jobs, like the cream of the crop employed by the USSF back when the national team had players on its payroll. On American television — my ultimate career goal — the commentators are most frequently European ex-pats and ex-players. The rest of us are left to hop around trying to get an occasional game, hoping not to fall out of practice, obligated all along to bring in income outside the soccer sphere. How long would a semi-pro player who works as a bank teller by day continue to tell people that he’s a soccer player when they ask what he does for a living?
Guatemala, Guatemala, April 2010
So I found myself living in Guatemala in a World Cup year, as an unemployed American international soccer commentator.
“You covered football for ESPN?” the sports editor at La Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s largest news daily, asked with unmistakable confusion.
“Actually, I still do, sometimes,” I answered, adding that I did in fact mean the game he knew, and not the American version — a common point of confusion.
“But why are you not at the World Cup?”
It’s taken me all these pages to explain it away, but “no money” is an easy enough thing to explain to a Guatemalan newsman. I must have done a good enough job of it, because he hired me to write a daily column during the World Cup.
The concept of an American international soccer commentator has proved not nearly so problematic in Guatemala, of all places. If you speak Spanish, spent time on the African continent where the World Cup was about to be played, and know its soccer, it turns out there’s a place for you in Guatemala. While such experiences and talents are surplus to requirements in an American market often deemed not quite ready for the game by those pulling the strings back home, there’s plenty of interest and plenty of money to pay to gain an edge when the World Cup rolls around in this country with one-twentieth the population of the U.S. and an ever smaller fraction of GDP. The global game is powerful enough that its version of globalization can turn the world upside down.
In Guatemala, such practical experience and ability fits the bill in a way it never could in the U.S. It even got me a role on a daily World Cup highlight show on a national television station. If production quality, investment, and equipment pale in comparison to that in use by the American networks at the World Cup, well, who cares? I haven’t even begun to dream about that league. Good enough for me, I had found another league to play in, just in time.
So it went for a month during the World Cup. With daily columns to write and analysis shows to tape, for the first time I could have responded with some hope to those young Americans who write me about becoming a soccer journalist. Except for one thing: none of those young Americans read a word I wrote, or saw even one of those shows. It was all in Spanish, disseminated to Guatemala.
World Cup Aftermath
My Guatemalan editor called the day after the World Cup ended.
“What are your plans now,” he asked. “We can continue to work together. We’ll get you the credentials for the local tournament.”
For those associated with the sport, the conclusion of the World Cup seems like a pretty good time to evaluate things. Something about the regularity of the four year cycle dovetails nicely with the human lifespan. I’ve been a serious observer of World Cups since 1990, when I was 15 — six of them now. My life has ebbed and flowed much the same way a national team cycle does. Four years changes most everything, but there will always be those common threads, the vestiges of accomplishments or realization of dreams achieved across the course of four complete trips around the sun — seeds planted that flourished, and others that withered. It’s probably no coincidence that the end of each World Cup also brings a renewed debate of the lasting relevance of soccer on the American sports landscape. The dollars earned from The Year of African Football dwindle away like Stateside buzz for the sport. The verdict inevitably translates into renewed concerns for those who would like to cover the American game for a living, but almost universally, the inquisition returns with little interest and no budget. More often than it could possible seem to their readers, even semi-pro and professional writers find soccer a hobby more than a job.
But in Central America — this irrelevant spot on the American news map (the words of one of my editors, not mine) — and in fact around the world, continuing interest in the game is not in doubt. Guatemalan teams can dream about next year’s youth World Cups in Mexico and Colombia, but the chance will be there for me to cover them for this country whether or not the nation is represented. American editors won’t send many American journalists to Copa America, but the last conversation I had with my editor was about availability to go to Argentina next year. I wouldn’t be traveling by bus, or raft, or staying in hotels with buckets of water instead of showers. In Guatemala, there’s money to send the right international soccer commentator.
Early World Cup returns in the U.S. aren’t promising. But if I get the opportunity to write from those tournaments for Americans, my tagline will have changed. Am I an American international soccer commentator?
Read it one way, and the answer is yes. But if American modifies soccer instead of me, well, I haven’t earned that title until I can swap Comunicaciones for DC United, Carlos Ruiz for Landon Donovan, and Mateo Flores for the Meadowlands. So for now, regretfully, I’ll have to take “American” out of my job description. But I won’t give up hope that the day is coming when I can put it back, without having to cross rivers on rafts or ride around African cities on the back of a motor scooter.
Of course I’d probably still do it that way, and happily, most of the time. I’m just waiting for the day American soccer grows enough to make it a choice instead of an obligation. Like many American soccer players toiling overseas, you have to follow the money and demand, hoping — for you or the next American kid looking to follow in your footsteps — that one day, it can be done at home.