MARK GLEESON on a free Camel in the press box…a rat-infested room in Brazzaville…and some Hot Chilli Peppers in the bar
Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
I started my journalistic career covering the courts, schools fetes and the ladies society’s tea parties but thankfully that did not last long. I got a chance to cover football very early on in my career, first as a substitute and quickly thereafter full-time.
Most memorable match?
Growing up in apartheid South Africa and the international sports boycott, it was always the subject of furious conjecture as to how our teams or individual sports people would do on the world stage. For many years I wrote frequently about how a possible national team might shape up, who might play and how it might fare. So the night South Africa’s first ever national team played its first international, against Cameroon in Durban in July 1992, was exciting, emotive and strangely surreal. It was not a great game and played in the rain with a soft penalty to give South Africa a fortuitous home win. But it was a game of such significance, marking the start of a whole new era. Football in the country has not looked back since.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Maradona’s mazy run against England at the Azteca Stadium at the 1986 World Cup and his semi-final effort against Belgium days later. I was at the stadium for both games, having been sent to the World Cup in Mexico by my Johannesburg newspaper as a green-horned 22-year-old. I remember just as keenly the Camel girls who dished out free cigarettes in the press box and the pizza they brought in at half time.
After decades of covering African football, traveling from one rickety stadium to the next with little or no facilities, the venues built in my own country for the 2010 World Cup still take my breath away. The stadium in my home town Cape Town looks, from far, like a giant bath tub while I have not missed many major matches game at Soccer City in Johannesburg since it was first opened in 1988. But the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban is really special, iconic almost.
…and the worst?
Across Africa there are many, a lot unsuitable for the game. But they also have a quixotic charm. And in many places, it is all they have. In Blantyre, Lilongwe for example, there has been teargas fired off by trigger-happy police every time I’ve been there, a nasty experience. People storm the gates, causing a suffocating crush that invariably always causes injury. But they never seem to solve the problem.
Your personal new-tech disaster?
Fortunately I have a decent understanding of laptops, wi-fi etc. But I have a habit of losing written notes, invariably long interview where I have not used a recording device.
Many, but I prefer to push them to the recesses of my brain and move on …
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Gary Bailey. Often. It’s because we both do a lot of local TV in South Africa and while many people have seen me on screen they don’t know my name and so blurt out the first football name they know and in South Africa it is invariably Gary Bailey.
Most media friendly manager?
Delia Fischer at FIFA does a brilliant job. She was embedded in SA before the 2010 World Cup and is now doing the same for Brazil.
Best ever player?
I’ve unfortunately never seen him live but to live through the career of Lionel Messi I think will prove a special honour of those of us who sit back on the couch late on Sundays to take in a Barcelona game on the telly. Not sure there will be another like him for generations to come
Best ever teams (club and international)?
The current generation of Barcelona and the Germans for their incredible consistency. I’d like to mention Cameroon of 1990 too because they did much to elevate the profile of African football, even if they kicked everyone off the park.
Best pre-match grub?
At Cape Town’s Athlone Stadium, they do a cold crumbed chicken that melts in the mouth. I had a wager once to try the cane rats on skewers, which they served outside stadiums in Malawi, but despite plenty bravado could not bring myself to try it.
Best meal had on your travels?
On my way to a 1998 World Cup game in Paris, I had a lamb kebab at a little hole in wall off the Champs Elyse. I went back almost every day after that.
…and the worst?
The local Reuters correspondent in Mali threw a welcome party at his house for the reporting, photographic and TV teams that went to cover the 2002 African Nations Cup. It was a oily peanut stew with fish, including a head in it. We ate so as not to offend to our host but were all sick for days after.
Best hotel stayed in?
During both the 2005 Confederation Cup and 2006 World Cup, I stayed at a hotel on the banks of the Rhine, not far from Cologne’s cathedral and railway station. Opulent luxury, sumptuous food and a regular diet of rock bands like U2 and Hot Chilli Peppers to hang out with in the bar.
…and the worst?
I went with the South African club Jomo Cosmos to Kinshasa to cover an African Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final tie in 1993. There were no direct flights so we flew to Brazzaville on the other side of the Congo river, to take the ferry across. An incredible journey. But we got to the harbour after closing time and had to spend a night at a hotel/lodge/bordello next to the crossing point. The rooms were rat-infested so the entire night was spent in the bar [The best excuse I’ve heard yet – Ed].
Favourite football writer?
My favourite journalist for his style and use of the language is Robert Kitson, but unfortunately he is wasted on the oval ball game. I enjoy Jonathan Wilson’s enterprise and Simon Kuper’s views on the game. I was a big Frank Keating fan as a young journalist but in those days the Fleet Street papers were over a week late in landing in the office.
Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Peter Drury. I’m not sure whom he works for the UK but he commentates a lot of the English premier matches we see in Africa. He is always thoroughly prepared, not only with interesting information but with clever descriptions and phrases. His voice does get a little falsetto when excited but he is class.
If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Access to players. It is not as bad in Africa as it is in Britain but more and more doorkeepers are being engaged to keep reporters away from talking to the real actors of the game.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
A cricket test at Lord’s between South Africa and England and the Super Bowl.
Last book read?
A book on the history of settlement in the Caribbean, an area I intend to travel once my kids are out of the house. The last sports book I read was the autobiography of Springbok rugby captain John Smith and the last football book was Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos by Gavin Newsham.
Favourite current TV programme?
I rarely do current TV but a night in with a box set of the Sopranos, Wired or Mad Men is a rare treat. I’m behind on the last two. I always make as point of watching Telefoot, the Sunday morning French programme which always does such clever and interesting inserts.
Your most prized football memorabilia?
I have the captain’s pendants that were handed to South Africa’s soccer teams by Portugal, the Netherlands, Bolton Wanderers, Dundee etc. from the 1920s to 1950s. I rescued the archive of the old Football Association of South Africa before it got tossed out and have since passed onto a university archive.
Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
It’s a privilege to cover soccer, a daily joy. Football reporters frequently moaning about their plight, meals, travel etc. get my back up. The best thing I ever did as a young reporter was go to the daily training sessions of the clubs I was assigned to cover. I suppose that’s not possible in Britain anymore but it is still the best source of stories and, more importantly, relationship building.
Mark Gleeson covers African soccer for Reuters, World Soccer and many other titles worldwide; he also works for the South African television channel SuperSport and is a partner in a domestic sports news agency, all from the shadow of Cape Town’s Table Mountain.