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Club World Cup diary (Part 2)

31 Jan 2012(Tue)

What’s it like covering football matches in the press box? What does being a semi-freelance writer actually entail? How do you combine it all with the day job? These are just some of the questions that beloved family members, friends old and new, and even exciting strangers on Twitter ask me with truly surprising infrequency.

Nevertheless, like in many professions the busiest part of the year is immediately followed by the quietest, and with the J. League clubs only just beginning to ease themselves into pre-season preparations, now seems like an opportune time to shed light on the above and, ooh, a modicum more with a semi-freelance writer’s diary of December 2011 – a footballing month dominated (in Japan, anyway) by the FIFA Club World Cup, hot off the back of the climax to the J. League season.

Any suggestion that this also conveniently serves as a means of easing myself into pre-season preparations following an extended Christmas break in the UK from which the mince pies and cider still require a bit of working off would be purely coincidental.

Thursday 8 December 2011: Desk – Sofa – Twitter

The trouble with having a day job – or one of them, anyway – is that going out to cover midweek matches requires a bit of advance negotiation. The FIFA Club World Cup gets under way tonight, and while missing out on any of the latter stage action in Yokohama was never an option, the holiday I’ll be taking to go back to the UK for Christmas means I’m a touch short of leeway to take many liberties aside from that. As such, it’s been another week almost entirely spent in front of one screen or other – mainly this one, at my desk. Fortunately, December has been reasonably mild thus far; Japan’s love of ‘eco’ technologies is confusingly contrasted by a widespread lack of double glazing and basic wall insulation, which can make the ‘office’ a touch chilly on the old typing fingers.

Aided along by iTunes and a spot of The Vaccines – which reminds me, I need to see about tickets for their gig in Osaka during the close season – I have endeavoured to remain productive enough to take advantage of all that’s going on in Japan right now while still keeping my contracted employers happy. After completing all daily quota requirements (and a bit more besides, the cheeky rascals), I recorded the weekly Minutecast on Monday, wrote a wordy review of the season on Tuesday, and penned a Blizzard companion piece for the fine chaps at In Bed With Maradona on Wednesday.

In a reversal of the usual roles, meanwhile, people seem to want to talk me too – which, if inevitably rather seasonal, is still always quite flattering. A British agent (as in football, not secret) wants me to liaise on a couple of potential transfers, which sounds like a fun way of using that Japanese degree seeing as I seldom write articles in the local language these days. A guy named Luke Geoghegan from This Is Futbol has requested an interview, while my new friend Michael Hudson has published a charming account at the ever-entertaining European Football Weekends of his recent trip down to Osaka for the Gamba fans’ end-of-season party. The proud Geordie neglects to admit that he fell asleep on my sofa, beer in hand, midway through the meeting of our respectively favoured Uniteds that night, however.

Of all places, I originally ‘met’ Michael through Twitter. Having previously seen little need to expand my social networking portfolio beyond Facebook – which serves as an invaluable means of gathering in one place with old friends some 6,000 miles west of here – I was requested to join up a couple of years ago by the Guardian so that my tweets could be fed to their website in real time as part of the World Cup fans’ network. The experience quickly taught me the error of my ways. Even just in terms of primary publicity, Twitter links were a key factor in doubling visitor figures to this column, the Football Japan Minutecast, and other English-language content on the site virtually overnight – though the Samurai Blue’s impressive performances in South Africa certainly didn’t hurt either. Then, as Twitter follower numbers increase, these kind followers can of course be directly and instantly informed of new articles whenever they are posted. This ensured that the readership did not drop off and indeed continued to rise, albeit at a more gradual rate, even when the sounds of vuvuzelas* had become a distant memory.

(* I still have two of the things here at home for nostalgic purposes. In practice, they do get the occasional blow while cleaning the flat or when hosting parties.)

But the real appeal and, indeed, surprising benefits of Twitter have come on a tertiary level. In some cases because they read my articles, in others because I read theirs, tweets have put me in touch with a number of fine people with whom I share similar interests. Sean Carroll, for example, is a British journalist with the Daily Yomiuri who also served on the Guardian’s World Cup fans’ network and with whom I was able to enjoy plenty of friendly online debate before we finally met at the Team as One charity match in Osaka back in March. Michael, his real-life chum Colm Smyth (a Yokohama-based ‘intermittent Arsenal blogger’), and I engaged in so much tweeted pub banter that we essentially became mates before actually getting the opportunities to meet in person. On occasion, the establishment of online communities can also lead to work, including my original contact with Alan Gibson, now editor at JSoccer Magazine; while a chance Twitter discussion with Michael back in January prompted a message from the most esteemed Jonathan Wilson, which in turn led to a cherished invitation to write for his then-forthcoming new quarterly publication, The Blizzard.

I suppose, in a sense, this function of Twitter acts like an extrapolated version of an online dating service – only since neither sex nor sexuality come into the question, what you have to say actually is the most important thing and it really doesn’t matter what you look like.

That said, English-language coverage of Japanese football remains enough of a niche market that, in one’s more paranoid moments, it can be easy to wonder exactly how far the audience extends beyond this nice little social network that we have gradually established. Minutecast listener statistics in the mid-to-low four figures offer a slightly more encouraging glimpse of reality, but like with John Duerden’s comment at the weekend, a good half of the feedback I receive via Twitter, Facebook, or the articles themselves tends to be from fellow Asian football writers. These are, naturally, the best kind of comments as both criticism and praise will be constructive and well-founded. But it sometimes makes you think: perhaps we’ve just got this little circle of us, composing prose purely for each other’s benefit? I’m quite tempted to try out Lee Hurst’s old joke about the lonely radio presenter doing the nighttime graveyard shift, who sought to ascertain the scale of his audience by gratuitously dropping an expletive into his broadcast.
“That was The B-52’s with ‘Love Shack’. Wanker!”
Seconds later, the studio phone starts ringing.
“Did you just say ‘wanker’ on the radio?”
“Yes! Are you a listener?”
“No, I’m another late-night DJ. What a good idea...”

But I digress. Another, more immediately practical function of Twitter in this line of work is to provide minute-by-minute-style coverage of matches (or something similar thereto). This is obviously facilitated by the real-time nature of Twitter but carries multiple benefits, as the tweets serve both as commentary for anyone following the game but unable to watch it on television and as personal memos from which I can write my pieces later (and thus would have to have been taking anyway). I admit that I can get a little carried away at times, but then I figure that most people who follow me like Japanese football anyway and, with plenty kind enough to share my in-game tweets, a typical Japan national team match can easily draw in a couple of dozen new followers.

Confined to my sofa for the evening kickoff from Toyota, as newly-crowned J. League champions Kashiwa Reysol get their Club World Cup campaign under way with the playoff match against Auckland City of New Zealand, I carry in the laptop and embark on a bit of shared note-taking. 90 fairly uninspiring minutes, with Kashiwa easing to a 2-0 victory, bring in a grand total of two additional Twitter followers. Hmm. Perhaps not everyone is as excited about this tournament as I am.

(To be continued. Click here for Part 1.)

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