Siberian Soapbox

Arsene Wenger is a surprisingly tall man. In the press conference room at CSKA Moscow’s VEB Arena in April he stood head and shoulders above everyone. OK, he was possibly helped by the raised platform. Even when he stepped down to floor level having finished his post-match commitments, though, his saggy grin was visible.

CSKA Moscow v Arsenal

His Arsenal side had been teetering on the edge of a dramatic aggregate defeat until Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey rescued the day with a goal apiece in the final quarter of an hour. Since then CSKA have been practically disbanded with retirements and departures, but a few months ago they were still decent. Even still, to have come so close to knocking out a huge English club was well beyond expectations.

So when the Frenchman stood up to leave, he may have been forgiven for his sheepish, almost apologetic, grin. What he probably didn’t expect was to suddenly be swarmed by half the room as if he were in One Direction. Honestly, there have been fewer more embarrassing sights in football than watching a herd of supposedly grown men throw self-respect to the wind just for an autograph and selfie.

Fanboy Journalists

Fucking pricks. I know plenty of hard-working serious journalists who would have killed to get accreditation for the game. Instead, it was fanboys clinging on to a mate on the inside that filled the numbers. In the stands, it was even worse. I swear to God, I had my ‘Hate Glazers, Love United’ scarf confiscated for the game on the grounds that it said the word hate, but hordes of squealing little children wearing CSKA shirts, hats, scarves, bloody underwear – probably – strolled in unchecked.

Forgive me, but at the risk of sounding pompous, shouldn’t journalism be independent and objective? If you write for a fanzine, your allegiance is clear and understandable. On the other hand, if you represent a national media organisation your duty if to be impartial. These tossers didn’t have the decency to hide their affiliation.

Spartak Moscow v Liverpool

It was even worse at the Spartak Moscow v Liverpool match last September. Spartak are known in Russia as The People’s Club thanks to a history of being unaffiliated with any Soviet state institutions. They were the rare beacon of free speech that didn’t tow the party line. As the years went on, they built an almost mythological image of purity that gained millions of fans across Russia. Nowadays, they boast by far the largest fan following.

When Brazilian midfielder Fernando scored a stunning free-kick, the press box erupted. Seriously, the cringe-worthy reactions of the tossers was incredible. One even leapt onto his desk and waved his scarf around his head like some deranged drunkard. Funnily enough, he barely lifted a finger towards a laptop all night.

Zenit St. Petersburg v Celtic

In the Europa League knockout stages in February, Celtic came to St. Petersburg to face Zenit. It was a perishingly cold Russian winter night, made worse by the maddening security protocols. The Krestovsky Arena, in case you don’t know, is a breathtakingly epic modern colossus that covers an enormous expanse of ground. It takes about 20 minutes just to walk around the entire perimeter fence, but double that to get through security checks.

As I struggled to explain to the expressionless guard that my laptop couldn’t turn on without the power cable, a decent chap behind me helped smooth over the increasingly fraught atmosphere. After finally making it through to the media centre, he chatted away and gave me his business card. During the game, however, he didn’t stop. I had an on-the-whistle match report to write, but here was this joker talking crap in my ear.

Finally, I asked him what he was actually doing in the press box. Was he reporting on the game in any way? No. “I know someone,” was his response. Taking someone else’s place, he sat there the entire match because he scratched someone else’s back.

Reporter or Fan?

These examples make me want to scream. Over a decade ago when I reported on my first match at Altrincham FC, I had to bloody well earn it. Scrapping around for accreditation, and then having to work in a regular seat as the press bench was full, it was uncomfortable, unwelcoming and testing. Now that may be an extreme example, but a middle ground is surely more suitable.

When I started out, I admit to chasing a few selfies and autographs. I snapped Andreas Granqvist, Emmanuel Frimpong, and Erik Bicfalvi – YouTube his recent goal against Dinamo Moscow – and loved it. During games, however, I couldn’t contemplate the ridiculous lack of self-respect on show in the stands themselves. There’s nothing wrong with loving your team; if you want to be a fan, be a fan – just not masquerading as a journalist.