I recently sat down with Sports Illustrated’s Senior soccer writer for a chat about how he got interested in journalism, why Qatar should never host a World Cup and who have been his favorite athletes to interview.
What got you interested in journalism?
Just from observing it and being around it. I grew up in Kansas City, reading the Star. I read sports Illustrated and read the New Yorker.
How did you get started with Sports Illustrated?
I applied in college, earlier in my senior year, to start out as a fact checker. An entry level position where you aren’t writing, but you have to do all the dirty work. It’s a thankless job; you only get noticed if you screw up.
How hard was it to move up the ranks?
I gave myself three years. If I wasn’t writing in three years I was going to go work at a daily newspaper where I could cover sports. Luckily I got the chance to write within in a year and did a good job with it.
Because soccer in America isn’t as popular as soccer abroad, I got more opportunities to write online because Sports Illustrated realized there was a demand for that kind of writing — even if it wasn’t in the magazine.
If you’re going to make it at an early age, you have to be good from the start. I wasn’t a perfect writer then or now, but I was ready to be published.
In college I was on the student paper, but more importantly I took three seminars from very successful journalism peers. One was David Remnick (from the New Yorker), one was a top editor at people and another one was with a war correspondent from The New York Times.
Learning from those people was an invaluable experience.
How much access do you get to US soccer and has that changed with the recent coaching change?
It’s really dependent on the coach; Bob Bradley [former US soccer coach] is more of a European style coach. He was stricter and didn’t reveal as much to the media. But US soccer understands that soccer isn’t that popular over here, so they realize they need us as much as we need them.
Have you followed Bob Bradley’s coaching journey to Egypt, how big of a story do you think that is?
Oh yeah, it’s huge. If he is able to take them to lead them to qualify for the World Cup, something they haven’t done since 1990, and to do it in a country like Egypt that is going through so much, it would be huge.
In the aftermath of their tragedy, where World Cup Qualifying games were cancelled, he not only stayed, but was supportive in a very public way.
You’ve covered March Madness, the Olympics and the World Cup, which is your favorite?
They’re all great, but I’d say the world cup. Just because it’s once every four years. So is the Olympics, but you also have Summer and Winter additions. The NCAA tournament is special, but you know it’s going to take place every year and it’s not showcasing the best athletes like the other events do.
What do you make about the recent heart attacks players (like Muamba in the English Premier League) have been suffering? Do you think there’s a possible story in that?
I think in general there are too many games being played and I think you’re asking a lot of players to ask them to play that many games. Soccer is a punishing sport and there is very little offseason. What’s interesting is that in Italy they do a lot of testing specifically for heart conditions, but it happened anyway when one of Livorno’s players died a few weeks ago.
It brings home how ludicrous it was to give the world cup to Qatar because it will be 120 degrees all the time.
It’s interesting that you brought that up because one of the things I wanted to ask you about was you’re your decision to run for president of FIFA. Was that your idea and how did your editors feel about it?
It was my idea and it came out of the shadiness around the world cup voting process. Not just because the US lost — if Australia or Korea would have won I could have respected that — but Qatar?
FIFA is an old boy’s network. These guys are all long standing political hacks, with absolutely no females to speak of involved. I wanted to call them out for that.
There was an element of satire, but there was also a very important story to go along with it. My editors loved it, they were very excited — we even ended up doing some campaign videos where I talked to people about my candidacy outside of FIFA’s headquarters.
With “The Beckham Experiment,” the book you wrote, what was it like having the media pull the most controversial quotes from the book and make a story out of that?
There’s a few ways of looking at it. There’s the book itself and the reporting of it over 2 and half years. I was really excited to have that much space. It was a story worth telling.
One of the things I was most proud of was the story I was able to tell about the rank and file league members who really made the league what it is — and then you have megastar David Beckham come over and make in one game more than what they make in a year.
When you start a book like that you never know what is going to happen. You have to be ready to change with the story. For all I knew, Beckham was going to be a great success and win the championship in his first season.
With the media’s coverage, it was clear there was tension between him and Donovan. So there were going to be some flash points when the book first came out. I think it’s important when you have an excerpt; you need to know the context. Which is why Donovan kept telling people to wait until the book came out because there was a bigger context to it all.
What was it like writing a book, as opposed to columns and feature articles?
It was a challenge; I’ve never taken on a project of that size before. You always worry about if people will talk to you. But they did. It’s a lot of extra work because during the two and a half years I was reporting on it, I was still doing my usual duties at SI — nothing changed on that front.
When it came to writing the book, I took a break from SI and went to South Africa where my wife was and I wrote the whole book in 72 days. It’s the hardest I’ve ever had to work. I got up every morning and wrote from 7-9. Sometimes I got 50 pages written and other days I had only a few paragraphs.
Do you still get assigned stories, or is it more what you want to do since you’ve been there so long?
The longer I’ve been there the more the ideas come from me. Now-a-days, 90% to 95% of the stories come from me. Which is better, I mean reporters will write better about what they want to write about.
When you do interviews for the magazine, I’m curious about how many of your questions are written out beforehand and how many are just you trying to have a conversation with somebody?
Some of both. You need to be really well prepared for your interviews whenever you do them. So you need to know what has been written about this person before and ask yourself how do I want this interview to go structurally.
Too many sports interviews ask the obvious questions. Shoot for the kind of questions can you ask that you don’t know the answer to. And then if they say things during the interview that you need to be able to follow up on them.
Who has been your favorite athlete to interview?
On the college basketball beat, JJ Reddick Adam Morrison — guys like that who were just smart guys that were interesting. I never had to push too hard to get them to tell me good stuff.
In soccer, US soccer players in general are pretty well spoken because most of them are college educated. Donovan is always a good interview and I conducted one with Xavi in Spanish that went really well. I’ve always enjoyed talking with Brad Friedel, in fact I’m writing a story on him for the magazine this week.
As far as coaches go, Bruce Arena is very candid and Jose Mourinho was a delight.