The Guardian’s Spanish football correspondent Sid Lowe talks to The Set Pieces about his route into the industry, his background in academia, and what journalism is like in Spain. The author of ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga‘ also tells us about the domination of Barcelona and Real Madrid and how both clubs have come to be identified by their stars, Messi and Ronaldo.
How did you get started in journalism?
My route wasn’t really very logical. I didn’t study journalism, although it was always an idea, but it wasn’t something I was particularly pursuing. I had lived in Spain for a year as part of my degree, I came back to Sheffield University at just about the time that the Guardian was starting to open up to European football. They were looking for someone to do Spain and Sean Ingle, who was on what was then called Guardian Unlimited, gave me a call. He knew that I could write and was saying to me that what I should really be doing was getting into journalism rather than pissing around with academia. It all started from there.
What is it about sports journalism that you enjoy?
The obvious answer is of course that I quite like football. So going to matches, talking about football, writing about football is therefore by definition enjoyable. If I hadn’t been a sports journalist there is no doubt that I would still have spent an enormous amount of time watching football and talking about it and reading about it. There is, though, an awkwardness in the crossover which is that, by definition, a job becomes a job no matter how much you love it. The way I experience football now is different to when I was just a fan.
Are there any nuances or quirks in Spanish football journalism?
One thing that isn’t a nuance, but is actually a clear-cut difference is that Spanish football journalism wears its shirt. It’s divided, it’s not quite straight down the line, but the four biggest sports dailies are absolutely divided. Two are Real Madrid and two are Barcelona.
Within that they have their interests, their support for certain presidents, certain figures within those clubs, but the sense that newspapers support a team in Spain is the fundamental difference between Spanish and English journalism. That makes the environment around Spanish football totally different, of course it feeds into the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona as both a consequence and a cause of that.
People in England enjoy trying to see or trying to claim that newspapers have got it in for their team. Funnily enough they never accuse a newspaper of being on their team’s side. They like to think they’re anti-City, anti-United, anti-whoever it may be, but in Spain you know that they absolutely are. In England it’s just not true, everyone has their own team and perhaps an implicit bias there, although I think most journalists actually try and be biased against their teams.
In Spain it is absolutely clear cut. In Spain it’s not that each journalist has their taste, it’s a commercial decision. They are newspapers that define themselves by their interest and support of a club.
Real Madrid fans, for example, would disagree with me. They’d say, “Well, actually the Madrid media try and screw us over,” that they screw them over with preferences for certain people within the club. That they screw them over by considering themselves important, or that they influence decisions, but the bottom line is that the two Real Madrid supporting newspapers want Real Madrid to win the European Cup.
Does the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid frustrate you?
Enormously. In terms of what I write for the Guardian, I respond to big news stories and what interests my desk and what my desk believes interests our readers. Inevitably that means you focus towards the big two because they fascinate people.
It also means that the focus is drawn towards the Champions League opponents of English clubs, but there is one element of the Guardian which I choose; my Monday column. I do thirty-eight columns a season and every season I will have chosen thirty-five or thirty-six of those. A couple of times a year someone says, “Look, the Monday story really should be this,” for whatever reason, but I choose it.
In all those columns, I probably only dedicate four of five of them to Real Madrid or Barcelona. I really am interested in trying to talk about the other clubs. After all, we’ve got enough of Real Madrid and Barcelona. What that has done is bring home to me even more clearly that I probably give more time to the rest of the league than the Spanish media.
It can be enormously frustrating. Really interesting things happen at other clubs, there are clubs with great identities, with really fascinating traditions and histories, with really good personalities playing for them, and your first port of call as a foreigner is what is the media saying about these guys. Then you go and see them and talk to them, you watch them play and that first building block, which is just a knowledge of what is going on, isn’t there.
The TV analysis programmes are dominated by Madrid and Barcelona, there are shows entirely about Madrid and Barcelona, the media is almost all about them.
I remember a few years ago, Racing Santander’s manager disappeared. They’d tried to sack him and he disappeared for a few days and this story wasn’t even in the papers. It was a brilliant story. It’s not as if there are only a few pages of sports news, there are sports newspapers with forty pages of news a day. Sometimes they’d rather tell you that Real Madrid are travelling to Kiev and this is what’s in their luggage, than tell you a much more important story from one of the other clubs.
It perpetuates a perception that Spanish football is only about two teams and it’s a little bit dull. I realise, however, that I sound like an enormous hypocrite having just written a book about those two clubs.
Well, a history of Granada and Almeria probably wouldn’t sell as well.
Exactly, and it wouldn’t be as interesting. Barcelona and Real Madrid are fascinating and because of their dominance they’re vehicles through which you can almost write a twentieth-century history of Spain, which is kind of what I was trying to do with ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga.’
I also wanted to explain why they’re dominant, because it is the reality. Often you get fans from other clubs saying they’re sick of the talk of Madrid and Barcelona, why isn’t there anything on Atletico or Sevilla or Valencia? All of those clubs do of course have their coverage and all of them, certainly Sevilla and Valencia, have very strong local press which give them an enormous amount of coverage and an enormous amount of pressure.
There’s no getting away from the bottom line, which is that Madrid and Barcelona’s dominance is both a cause and a consequence of their dominance. In other words they dominate and everyone talks about them so everyone becomes a fan of them, then they dominate even more and the whole thing spirals. Madrid and Barcelona take home much, much bigger TV money than anyone else, €140m, as opposed to a club at the bottom that might take €20m. That’s deeply unfair in terms of the overall structure of the league and in terms of the balance of power within Spanish football, but it’s also a reflection of a social reality. These two clubs account for more than 60% of Spanish football fans and there’s no getting away from that.
Is the dominance of Messi and Ronaldo similar to the dominance of Madrid and Barcelona?
Messi and Ronaldo are extraordinary really, we’ve got to a point where the clubs can be reduced to these two figures, and they seem to almost identify the clubs perfectly. Certainly from a Barcelona perspective, they’ve decided that their guy is homegrown and he’s humble. Your guy is flashy and you spent millions of pounds on him.
Jorge Valdano remarked that you’re not even allowed to say anything nice about the other team now, you’re forced into this negativity constantly. As a left-leaning Argentinian whose football aesthetic was expressed better by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona than any Real Madrid team, he was caught in this slightly strange limbo where he, a former Real Madrid player, manager and director, was being rejected by a lot of Real Madrid fans because they thought he was cosying up to Barcelona.
He’s a good expression of the idea that we’ve reached a ridiculous point. You can’t say, “What a great hat-trick from Messi,” without someone saying, “Yeah but he’s not as good as Ronaldo, is he?” You can’t say “Wow, Ronaldo’s just scored a hat-trick!” because someone will say “Yeah, but it’s all penalties. He’s rubbish really.” It’s pretty bonkers at times.
How has your academic background helped your career in journalism?
The obvious way in which it helped is that my degree was in History and Spanish, so linguistically it was very important for doing Spanish football. It’s also what initially brought me to Spain, so although I started doing my column from Sheffield, it was at a time when I was doing a masters in Spanish political history, so I was in Madrid quite a lot.
When I started the PhD soon after that, the reason I went to Spain wasn’t so much for journalism though that had already started and was gathering some momentum, it was for the PhD. In practical terms it gave me the language, it put me back in Spain after having put me in Spain in the first place and lastly, in a less tangible sense, it turns out that Spanish football is extremely political and the historical significance of it is really important. That is something that takes on greater significance as time goes on and wasn’t immediately apparent, but it has ended up being very significant for me, not least because ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga‘ is in some ways an amalgam of the football and the political history.
Has studying the history of Spain given you a unique insight into Spanish football?
It’s certainly helped. As much as anything else it has given me a sense of confidence and assurance in writing about things that do piss people off. I hear lots of people saying don’t mix football and politics and so on, I think having had that grounding in political history means that when I’ve dealt with more overtly political issues or the identification of clubs or their sociological role I’ve felt on firmer ground than I would have done if I didn’t have that grounding. Then of course I took on a book about the history of Real Madrid and Barcelona which genuinely can not be understood without the political elements, so at that point it was particularly valuable.
Do you ever miss the world of academia?
I wouldn’t say I necessarily miss the world of academia as such, it’s not a university environment that I miss, but there is a real joy in, for example, archival research and finding stuff that no one has seen before, that sense of putting together a case and seeking evidence is really enjoyable. There was some crossover, for ‘Fear and Loathing’ I spent some time in archives as well and found some documentation that hadn’t been found before. In particular this one file had never been seen and one day I pulled it out of a box in an archive and looked at it and thought, ‘I don’t believe it, fuck me we’ve found it!’
Do you ever get frustrated by misconceptions about academia and does it affect your writing?
I often get accused of over-using the word caveat and sometimes expanding the analysis. Sometimes there is a tendency to be simplistic, and maybe that makes for an easier read. Of course there is an enormous skill in being able to reduce something to the fundamental point, but I think you look at how things happened, why things happened, or interpretations and different experiences of the same thing, and it’s never completely straightforward.
I must admit that’s possibly a flaw in my writing, that sometimes I do fail to simplify and clarify, but that comes from that sense of thinking that nothing is so clear-cut. It always amazes me how often people are absolutely sure that something happened. Even something as simple as a penalty for example. You see some people who are absolutely sure that it’s a penalty. The only thing I know for sure is that I’m not absolutely sure of anything.
You can follow Sid Lowe on Twitter (@sidlowe)
You can follow Ryan Kirkman on Twitter (@RyanKman). Ryan is the second of our interns and has shown great potential in his short time with the site. He’s in his first year at university, but he’s available for freelance. You should drop him a line.