Date: 10th March 2013 at 3:42am
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1968clipAfter the heartbreak that was Tuesday night, the weekend arrives and the football world is still discussing a game which made the world stop. It is all football fans can talk about. From children in the school playground to men in the local pub – it is safe to say that the Madrid game has left fans all over the world in either a whirlwind or just in shock.

However, like all controversial games, Manchester United are now faced with hundreds of media reports hinting at various rumours.

“Man Utd ace Rooney pushing for Barcelona move”, “Just do it! Nike in talks with Manchester United over funding Ronaldo deal”, “Rooney out, four in – creating a Champions League-winning team?” and “José Mourinho can shake hands on a job at Manchester United” are just a handful of the ridiculous headlines of articles being published on a daily basis. Just reading a few of these shocked me and caused me to asked myself: “What has happened to football journalism?”

Gone are the days of accurate, interesting stories that would awaken our own minds and make us reach for more. The type of journalism that challenges the readers own views, plants enthusiasm in our hearts and brings new knowledge to our minds is gone.  And what are we left with? Melodramatic, sensationalist  writing that numbs the brain with overused clichés and focuses on hearsay and gossip. This revelation caused me to look into press reports from days gone by and really explore how football journalism has changed.

Back in 1968, on the occasion of Manchester United’s first European Cup triumph, the match report was a tribute to the team. This piece of journalism expressed their style of play through important facts. It was exciting, making readers feel as though they were at the game as it built suspense with phrases that, when you read them, came across in the same way that the Pathe News commentator would do his film based football reports. There were key quotes from the manager with a heartfelt tribute to the players who died in Munich. Fifty years later, you would never find such a piece.

Just five years ago, Manchester United won the European Cup again. The match report from the BBC markedly contrasts to that of the 1968 win. We see football dramatised by writers, as there is no longer a focus on the actual game, but on the famous players such as Ronaldo and the controversies within the match. For example, the third sentence immediately describes the red card for Didier Drogba after ‘slapping Nemanja Vidic.’ The reports of pinnacle points in the game are laboured and hardly thrilling, with the writer concentrating on ‘sparring’ between the teams. It seems that nowadays newspaper editors no longer care about hard hitting sports journalism and it is time for readers to ask, what’s the deal?

Back in the day…

Let’s rewind 150 years to Long Acre in London, where the first set of rules for the modern game of football were written. With this came journalism surrounding ‘the beautiful game’ which over the years has increased in popularity, making football one of the most debated topics in the media. Football rapidly became a national pastime in the 1800s, and by 1890 the sport appeared in local, national and specialist newspapers.

This was football in its simplest form.

Back then reporters focused on the pitch, not the Saturday night antics of players. With the birth of popular football journalism, came a wider commentary, helping fans keep up with their favourite teams.

Reports on games up to the early 1900s were very different to those today. Instead of focusing on the mind games of managers and feuds between teams, journalists presented us with a precise, detailed and appealing review of matches, along with impressive drawings.

War of words

Fast forward to the 1940s and nearly 2 million people a day were reading newspapers with high football content. However, after finding fame in journalism, the football world began to lose control. This was thanks to wartime football. When World War II was declared in 1939, football suffered with suspended competitions, players signing up to fight, some not returning home. People longed for football, but it was forgotten about.  And after the war ended, journalists needed to find a new way to recapture attention.

Therefore as the 1950s approached reports became more factual. Articles were no longer written from a serious angle, but one that gave the reader new knowledge about their team with a balanced tone.

With the growth of tabloids such as ‘The Mail’ and ‘The Daily Mirror’ in the 60s that dedicated a lot space to football, saw a media obsession with scandal and the private lives of players, with photographs replacing intricate illustrations.

The ‘swinging sixties’ brought a change, not only in culture but in footballers too. An example would be George Best, who was the first ‘pop star’ of the football pitch. We all know he famously said, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” Footballers were stereotyped as party animals but at the same time they were idolised by young children on the pitch. Reports were still factual but the style adapted, ensuring readers got a little gossip along with their match statistics.

Tomorrow’s fish n’ chip paper

The 70’s saw the tabloids come into their own. Less formal than a broadsheet, they appealed to the ‘average Joe’. The working class man also represented a lot of football fans at this time, a smart move by the tabloids. Controversy was rife in the sports sections, as off-field news took over and the general slant in football journalism leaned more towards what sold a newspaper.

For the rest of the 20th Century there was a real increase in off-field events taking over the ‘beautiful game’. Hooliganism and banning orders, and worse, dominated the headlines and football became the bad boy of sports. Every unsavoury incident was exaggerated and reported, replacing interesting and in-depth match reports or player profiles – they were simply a distant memory for both fans and editors.

This is still present in today’s football society. The focus on gossip and irrelevant information is a reaction to the competitiveness of the media environment. Instead of having faith in the product – well-written, gripping journalism – newspapers are less concerned about success on the pitch. The result: scandalous affairs of players such as Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch covering every newspaper. Despite managers and clubs disciplining players for indecent behaviour off the pitch, ranging from partying until the early hours to smoking, this has not stopped footballers becoming more like celebrities than athletes.  But it’s the hunger for this type of story for the papers that is responsible for that.

It’s safe to say that the game has evolved from the 1800s. Back then there was no mention of egos such as Mario Balotelli’s, who when asked by a police officer why he was carrying over £5,000 responded simply with, “because I am rich”. There were no outrageous wages such as the estimated £350,000 per week Samuel Eto’o earns and no costly transfers like that £80 million deal for Cristiano Ronaldo. Football is changing, but unfortunately so is the way it is reported. There’s an influx of less hardcore fans that have infiltrated the sport, who now want to know the latest gossip concerning the style of Rooney’s hair transplant rather over the style in which their team play.

Football journalism that was loved and respected over fifty years ago is long gone. Nowadays it’s more about selling a juicy story than the facts behind it. Lively, critical, talented writing seems secondary to rumour and scandal.

Whether it can be resurrected or not is a question many sports fans are asking.

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