Photo: Action Images
By Jamie Trecker
Last night Gareth Bale completed his sweep of the awards circuit by collecting the Football Writer’s Player of the Year Award here at a posh hotel off Kensington Gardens. It is the most prestigious of the awards, and a throwback to the days when the relationship between the media and the players was very different than it is today.
It is one of the few times of the year that the people who play the game and the people who cover it get together and act chummy. Most of it’s off the record, a lot of it is fueled by alcohol. In years past the, the gala was notorious for its punch-ups and the sheer volume of hangovers it could produce. It’s a very English event: several hundred unwashed scribes poured into the cleanest possible suits, all with exactly the same rep tie. The aim is not to stand out (advice ignored by the American, who was put into his suit by his partner and foolishly wore a bow tie) to avoid embarrassment and then get pissed.
There’s lots of back-slapping. Glasses of lager are sloshed, and it’s a badge of honor to get the next round. If you’re unwary, you can end up holding six pints inside five minutes. The players and managers walk about freely. Rafa Benitez was eagerly explaining, well, something, to anyone in earshot. Andre Villas-Boas was extremely polite. I ended in the urinal next to Roy Hodgson.
The problem with free food is that you have to listen to speeches, almost all of which are unbearable. Gareth Bale gamely stumbled through an interview in which he insisted that things were “fantastic” and owed a debt to his mum and dad for, well, having him. He refused to be drawn into a chat about his “future,” while his interrogator, too pointedly, kept urging him to stay in England. Other remarks ranged from the mercifully brief to the saggy and impenetrable. One man talked a bit about Wales, took a left turn into newspapering and for all I know may still be going on.
Yet every once in a while at these rituals, you learn something. David Miller, who was being granted lifetime membership, came up to the stage. He’s not a man you would know, but you should: he’s seen and covered the last 16 Olympic Games and every World Cup since 1958. He remembers when Stanley Matthews won the inaugural FWA award back in 1948 – for the first time.
Miller started with the tenor of eager lecturer at a boarding school. He spoke about the need for soccer writing to continue. He spoke about how we was worried about people’s jobs. And then he said something that will stay with me forever.
“I’m grateful to football because it enabled me to learn so much about this country,” said Miller. “I traveled up and down England, and saw everything this country had to offer. And football helped me understand it. I learned its history and its people, and sharing that knowledge to our readers is the most important thing we do.”
Miller is dead right. Soccer has helped me travel around the world, going to places I never would have ever thought to step foot in. I’ve met thousands of people over the nearly twenty years I’ve covered the sport, and seen things that I never dreamed possible. Soccer is the world game and moreover is the way this world communicates. It’s why we writers do what we do.
So congratulations to Mr. Bale. And thanks to Mr. Miller. He’s done all of us a greater service than we realize.
This piece is in a series sponsored by the new Samsung Galaxy S 4 phone. I’m traveling across Europe this month and you should tell me where you’d like me to go and what you’d like to hear about. Tweet me at @JamieTreckerFOX or use the #heytrecker hashtag @FOXSoccer.