Vox in the Box: Rafa Honigstein

Rafa Honigstein is the undisputed authority on German football. Originally from Munich, he began writing for the Guardian in 2006 and joined the European Football Show on BT Sport in 2013. His first book, Englischer Fussball: A German View of Our Beautiful Game was released in 2008. His new book, Das Reboot: How German Football Revinvented Itself and Conquered the World, will be out in September 2015.

How did you get started, Rafa?

I was minding my own business, studying law at UCL in the early ‘90s and going back to Munich for weekends. I kept meeting interesting guys, interesting artists and I had a lot of friends working in the media. One day, one of them just said, “Why don’t you write about these people that you meet?” I think my first article was about drum and bass, so I could’ve easily had a different career. I did this for around six years, writing about music and fashion and my highlight was interviewing Sade. She is amazing, you will not hear anything bad about her. In fact, I loved her so much that I went up to her and had to thank her on behalf of every fifteen year old boy – because without her music, nobody would’ve got laid! If you put on Sade, the girl knows that the guy is serious.

And then Ronnie Reng, the great Ronnie Reng, he decided with his then girlfriend that they were going to move from London to Barcelona. He had built up this amazing array of clients, both German and Swiss papers taking copy from the Premier League. And he said to them, “Look, there’s this guy here who writes a little bit of other stuff who quite likes football, would you mind if he does what I’m doing?’ And that was it. That was in… 2001.

Were you straight in doing live matches?

I was at the stadiums, but no, never live matches. I was lucky because we have these weird deadlines in German football because of worker protection and regulations about what you can do at night, which effectively meant no foreign football reports going into the paper after 7pm. But it’ was great, because you’re only doing the day after pieces. Sort of the analysis, the reaction, the theory pieces.

And it was a good time, because there were loads of Germans there. It was that second wave after Klinsmann, when you had Hamann, Hitzlsperger and Ziege and guys like that. And it’s great because these guys see you as a bridge back to their motherland if you will. They trust you, implicitly. They also know that the kind of job you do is not about being immoral or nasty, but more about taking an interest in their lives and relaying what they go through on and off the pitch. Living as a German in England. So you already have a lot in common at that point and it’s easy to relate to each other.

Did you find yourself helping out the German players as they settled in England?

There were a few things. I had the father of a player call me asking the the best way to lease a Volkswagen Golf and how much are flats in Barnet! You almost become a bit of a relocation expert, but you do it because, well, why wouldn’t you? My brother always took the piss out of me because people you might have been critical of in the past, when you meet them in real life they’re not actually that bad. They’re not this on-the-pitch-crazy-persona, horrible to everyone. They’re actually nice, normal human beings.

When did you start writing for the Guardian?

In 2006, I submitted this comedy article about two German fans writing to their English friends about the World Cup and it was an absolute disaster. It didn’t work at all. I showed it to Kevin McCarra (former football correspondent for the Guardian and he very politely turned it down!

But I think he remembered me, because when the Guardian actually decided to have a German blog in January 2007, somebody called me and asked me if I wanted to do it. And… yeah, everything followed after that.

How did you find the English press when you were working for them for the first time? Were you a bit of an oddity?

Honestly, I haven’t got one bad word to say about them. Everyone was incredibly helpful. They help you out, you help them out as much as you can. There’s never been any rivalry or conflict. Yes, I work in the English media to an extent but really, we’re doing different jobs just in the same space. They were so welcoming. In fact, it’s been incredibly easy and pleasant to work with these guys.”

You’ve been in the UK at an interesting time, you’ve seen the final days of old school journalism. You’ve seen the transition into where we are now, the press boxes are full of diverse journalists using different methods. It must’ve been fascinating to see that.  

It was. When I started, it was very old school. There were no bloggers, there was no digital media really. I think as a result, the view you got was slightly one dimensional. Now you have a much more 360 degree view on things. Tactical analysis, other voices. But even then what surprised me was the scale in which football was covered in England. Many more resources allocated to it, more papers, more journalists than compared to Germany. In Germany, we only have two broadsheets. News is very local, so we only have one national tabloid. That kind of skews everything. But I honestly believe that we, I say we because I’ve been here for so long, but England has some unbelievably talented writers.

What kind of stuff do you like reading?

I wouldn’t necessarily put a genre on it. People I enjoy reading are Paul Hayward and Henry Winter, there’s Gab Marcotti and Danny Taylor. Then if you go a bit further, Sid Lowe is a master at what he does. There is an incredible amount of brilliant stuff that you can find and read every day.

You’re a regular on the European Football Show on BT Sport, another sign of the way that football coverage has changed. What really stands out on that show is that you all look like you’re having fun.

Most of the time it doesn’t feel like work, it is a great deal of fun to work with those guys. We really get along. but James Richardson regularly stitches me up. It’s become a bit of a habit, a bit of a joke to come to me with really random questions that nobody knows the answer to! He’ll ask me what long European football tunnels I can think of, or how many penalties Manuel Neuer has saved in his career!

There was, of course, that one moment where you didn’t think you were on air, where you made a certain gesture…

This will probably find it’s way into a media studies course at some point. The ultimate post-modern joke. Somebody trying to make a joke about somebody making a joke on television, not realising that the joke would be on him.

(Ed’s Note: The previous day, BT Sport’s David Ginola had been caught executing the universal hand signal for wanker, apparently under the impression that the camera was off. It was on. The next day, Honigstein repeated the gesture to host James Richardson, again, under the impression that the camera was off. Again, it was on.)

I had a terrifying voice in my ear from my producer at the time who simply said, “We are live.” At this point, I mumble, “No, we’re not.” And he says again. “We are live.”

How did you feel? Live on television and you’ve done the Nescafe handshake.

Very bad. Very bad. And I have to say, Twitter saved me. The only person ever to be saved by Twitter! There was one guy who said, “How do I explain this to my children who were watching?” and I felt sorry for him. But everybody else, and I’m not exaggerating, there must have been about 300 other messages saying, “Ah, come on! It wasn’t that bad!”

You were taken off air weren’t you?

“Yep. Because of what happened the day before, they needed to clamp down on that sort of thing. Quite rightly. But I’m eternally grateful that BT and Sunset Vine, the producers, stuck by me and realised that it was a mistake.

Did you fear for your position?

“This’ll sound a bit weird, but I felt really sorry for the guys doing the show. I really badly let them down. It had nothing to do with them, and it was just me being stupid.

How were they afterwards?

Everyone was shocked. We can laugh about it now, but at the time…People say ‘chin up’ and they were great, but that night, I hardly slept. It was such a stupid thing to do. I was trying to be funny and it went wrong. It’s taught me a lesson. Never try to be funny!

Let’s talk about your forthcoming book, ‘Das Reboot.’ Did you always plan to write something about Germany’s revival?

No, not at all. Because I don’t like writing. Which is…erm…a real problem! I had a very uncomfortable experience writing my first book, and that was when I didn’t even have kids and I didn’t have as much work as I do now. So, remembering that, I told myself that I didn’t ever want to write a book again.

But, it was such a pivotal moment and the story was actually quite an obvious one, quite a classic one to tell. You start off with Germany being really rubbish, making changes,  being really good and then winning – the end! So in that sense, it’s good because I’m rubbish when it comes to creativity and imagination. You just have to follow the story. I’d written about it before, I’d met people before, and when my publishers said that they really want me to write a book, and they gave me enough time to do it, I said ok. It was great, because I had a chance to fly to America and meet Klinsmann, as well as travel to Germany alone a few times. It’s a football story, but it’s also about Germany, Germany as a country and how their way of thinking translates into football. Having written a book about England, and how English football works it feels like I’ve sort of done the sequel in a way. Even though the results might be slightly different!

What’s the difference in how the English do things compared to how the Germans do things?

It’s very hard to sum up in one word. But I think a great insight into German thinking is that after Manuel Pellegrini got his maths wrong against Bayern Munich, the reaction in England was, “Yeah, bit of an idiot, should have done better, but who cares?” In Germany, people were saying, “This guy does not know how to do his job! He will never be hired by a German football club!” They just found it totally unforgivable that he did not know a fundamental part of the game, and here people just shrugged it off.

I think what the best coaches in the game, and not all of them are German, have taught us is that the game is so random. There are so many things you cannot control that at least you owe it to yourself to control the things you can. And to do as much as you can to give yourself the best possible chance to get lucky, or not to get unlucky.  Failure to do that is a big problem.

The funny thing I realised while writing the book, is that German football hasn’t always thought like that. There was a stage where it was, “Oh well, the game is the game, what can you do?”

It took a long time to get past that, and I think that’s why it went wrong. Not looking abroad, not looking at what’s happening elsewhere. And it took those disastrous results for people to change something. It took something like Klinsmann, from California, to come in and say, “Look, we’re starting again.”

Who can do that for England? Will it take something like that?

Yeah. I think it will. It takes a really young, driven manager but it’s more than that. With Klinsmann, it was something he thought a lot about and had to be really headstrong about. But on some level, he always had the support of the clubs behind him. The way that the Premier League is set up, almost in opposition to the FA, the way that you have foreign owners who clearly have no interest in English players coming through and, sadly, the way that many fans have no real interest in English development either, it’s hard to see where the real radical change can come from. The best thing you can say, or hope is that the recent changes in youth development will naturally bring through some good players but we’ll have to wait five or six years and get back to you on that.

You can follow Rafa Honigstein on Twitter (@Honigstein)

You can find out more about Das Reboot here on Amazon.

Vox in the Box: Rafa Honigstein
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