From Russia with loneliness: Meet Michael Burgess, the only Kiwi journo
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Believe it or not, only one journalist from New Zealand has been covering the Confederations Cup: Michael Burgess from the New Zealand Herald, the biggest newspaper in the country.
"Tens of reporters had arrived to Russia from Germany, Mexico, Chile, Portugal, Australia and Cameroon, but I am the lone Kiwi here," he told ESPN FC when we met at a coffee shop on Nevsky Prospect.
The fact that Burgess managed to make the trip at all was impressive.
"We have two huge sporting events in New Zealand at the moment," Burgess explained. "The All Blacks host the British Lions in rugby, and that only happens once in 12 years. There is also the America's Cup, a very important sailing competition that takes place every four years. Naturally, all of our resources, including the reporters and the budget, were committed to them.
"And yet, it was important for us to cover the Confederations Cup, too. We didn't want to disrespect our national team, as well as Russia and FIFA. Eventually, we found the sponsor who covered most of the costs of my trip."
Those costs are rather significant. "It is an expensive journey," Burgess added. "The flight itself is very long -- 17 hours to Dubai and then another six hours to St. Petersburg. I had to be smart, and the accommodation is modest -- I am actually living in a hostel at the moment. But it has paid off, because I am really excited to be here."
That excitement was clearly stronger than the fear of travelling to a country with a problematic image in New Zealand. "My girlfriend was happy for me, but worried about going to Russia," he said. "She thought that could be dangerous and heard about some terrorist attacks. However, I was certain that the security should be very tight. I know how the Russians work.
"My only real concern was the language barrier, and that proved to be a significant problem indeed. At times I feel helpless, like a child. It is difficult to explain myself or understand other people, because nobody speaks English. Getting around is not easy. It must be said that Russian people are wonderful, though. They are always willing to help."
Burgess has been busy ever since landing in Russia two days before the opening game. Not only does he file daily reports for the newspaper, but there is also a need to conduct radio interviews because the New Zealand Herald merged with a radio station two years ago.
"I didn't have a lot of time for sightseeing, but just walking around is phenomenal," he said. "Daylight at night is amazing in St. Petersburg, even though I am losing track of time. It was great to swim in the Black Sea on my trip to Sochi to cover the game against Mexico.
"It is winter in New Zealand now, and it is nice to escape into the summer. The flight from St. Petersburg to Sochi is long, almost like from Auckland to Sydney."
The most unusual feeling, though, is being the lone representative for his country.
"There are positive aspects to that," he said. "For example, I have almost unlimited access to the players. There is no competition. I can ask three or four questions at a press conference instead of one. FIFA also arranged me the best seat at all the games."
However, there are negatives, too.
"Usually, journalists share tasks after games," he added. "Some go to the press conference, others wait for players in the mixed zone. Even if they are from rival newspapers, you exchange information. Here I have to do everything myself. After the game vs. Mexico, I didn't know where to go. I started with the mixed zone, but then the press conference started. I ran there, asked a couple of questions, and then ran back just in time to interview Chris Wood. Then I noticed that our coach Anthony Hudson went by, so I abandoned Wood and ran to him. Overall, that is rather difficult.
"I miss being with my colleagues in my spare time, too. It is weird not to have someone to share experiences with. On the other hand, there are more opportunities to meet people from other countries, and that is actually great."
With New Zealand out, having lost all three matches, Burgess is set to travel home on Tuesday, but he only booked the trip until the end of the group stage anyway. "I would have extended my stay if we had qualified for the semifinals, but it was illogical to expect that. You hope for a miracle, but must stay realistic."
The first game against Russia (a 2-0 defeat) was hugely disappointing, but Burgess believed that the Kiwis deserved to take at least a point from a heroic performance against Mexico which ended in an unlucky 2-1 loss.
"We haven't had so many scoring chances for a very long time. There were nine New Zealand fans in the stands, and they were over the moon. Witnessing that goal made the whole trip worthwhile," Burgess said.
A 4-0 defeat against Portugal in the final game was rather harsh on the Kiwis, but Burgess hopes to come back for the World Cup next year.
"I didn't go to the World Cup in 2010 because I wasn't the main football writer at the time," he said. "That team was stronger tactically. They played really well as a group, but the current squad is more exciting.
"There are a lot of young talents who should be able to develop into good players. It would be great to cover our team at the greatest tournament if we manage to qualify. One thing is certain, though -- there should be more journalists from New Zealand in Russia next year."
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin