Under-17 WC has big-event feel, but Olympics in a league of its own
For a sports journalist, the buzz of being under the big tent of a "global" or "world" event is hard to replicate. At some point, you pinch yourself to ensure that your subconscious self takes note of being first-hand witness to something unique, a momentous and defining piece of a sporting history.
This then is that personal reminder that India's Under-17 World Cup has been, at a personal level, an exercise of discovery, invention and the forever-whirling magic of global football.
In terms of nation-v-nation sporting competitions, the Olympics, the football World Cup and the cricket World Cup are the top three. In the media rights value of their eyeball-grabbing abilities, nothing else comes close - not the hockey and rugby World Cups, not even the Nordic Skiing World Championships.
While I've been to cricket World Cups and the Olympics (five and two, respectively), a football World Cup to date has been a distant dream. The closest I got was an accreditation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup but didn't get to go. The Under-17 version is the minor taste of what the real deal feels like.
If it looks like a World Cup, if it sounds like a World Cup...
First things first. Everything about the cricket and football World Cups - and to an extent the Olympics - looks like it has been designed by the same brand manager, out of some cookie-cutter textbook.
The logos, the signboards, the identification hoardings for the venues, so you know where the event is being held. Colours and logos are all that appear to look different, everything else designed to look uniformly consistent on television. The pre-game ceremonies look and sound identical - an official tune (not the official song) stirring to underline the importance of the event, children carrying flags etc. The child mascots walking alongside the athletes at the football and cricket World Cups are missing at the U-17 World Cup. These footballers themselves, we often forget, are boys.
At the Guwahati venue, there is a rather bizarre sign at the security gate saying "mags and bags", apparently meant to separate men and women. As if women don't read magazines and men don't carry bags. Or the other way around. But that is mere piffle.
The tribe gathers and demands access
How about the numbers of the large tribe of sports journos? FIFA folk say approximately 1500 media accreditations have been handed out to the written and AV press for the U-17 World Cup. The senior version hosted almost 19,000 accredited journalists in Brazil 2014. The Olympics absorbs much more than that - one estimate said 31,000 accredited and non-accredited journalists were in Rio last year.
The ICC's official figures for media accreditations handed for the 2011 World Cup played over six weeks across three countries was 2026. These include written press, TV reporters, camera persons and photographers. On match day, press box access is given to two reporters per organization.
The 'mixed zone' - a corridor deep in the stadium's bowels through which athletes pass either after leaving the field of play or on their way out of the ground - is de rigeur at an Olympic Games or a World Cup (even this one). It is where journalists gather to throw questions at the athletes - even a Usain Bolt or Simone Biles - going past after winning or losing. They are not obliged to stop but many of them do, and offer a few pearls. It makes for a healthy exchange between the athlete and a very vital 'stakeholder' of the global event, regardless of the athlete's minders.
Cricket, though, only got its first 'mixed zone' at the Champions Trophy earlier this year, a truncated version with only a handful of players walking through, instead of the entire team, as in football. Some U-17 teams ensure that their most lauded players escape the mixed zone scrum - either by taking a different exit or rushing through when an official press conference is on.
By and large though, the idea is healthy and democratic, so good thing cricket has chosen to jump in. The Olympics' crazy access rules regarding "non rights broadcasters" means athletes are coaxed outside the restricted areas to give interviews to TV channels from their countries.
Talking in Tongues
In terms of scale, little can beat the Olympics, where press conferences of the mega superstars are held in auditoriums. Except as time goes by you pick up a few clues - that it is essentially the English-speaking megastar that is put into an auditorium. The Moroccan middle distance runner or the Ethiopian marathoner attracts their national press, a smattering of wire services reporters, athletics specialists and we're done.
In Beijing in 2008, Roger Federer held a press conference in such a small venue that its standing room capacity became a hundred angry journalists. It took Federer's measured and thoughtful answers in three languages to calm everyone down.
A cricket World Cup does present a variance of cultures if not languages, but it does not use auditoriums. The desks around your workspace at the Main Press Centre of an Olympic Games could be filled by Mongolians, Hungarians and Ecuadorians, but across two weeks it's possible you never meet each other at an event. Given the multiple Olympic disciplines (modern pentathlon, anyone?), the reasons for being at those Games differ from country to country.
This football World Cup in India, however, has been an utterly original walking-talking beast. The opening engagements took place in multiple tongues and featured lessons in geography and general knowledge. Qualifying for the World Cup wasn't debutant Niger's only sporting achievement. They had an Olympic gold medallist in taekwondo as well. They are most certainly not to be called Nigerians but Nigeriens. At the U-17, Indian publications didn't have the option, like we do in cricket, of only chasing our own. They had to engage with the world in its entirety.
Inside my first two days in Kochi, we attended press conferences in five languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean and Arabic. English, it reminded you once again, is not the world's most widely-spoken language. It doesn't appear to be the footballing world's first language either. The maximum number of players exported into Europe - in thousands - belong mostly to non-English speaking countries in South America or Africa. Why, it is believed around 400 Japanese football players are signed on around the world every year.
Every Olympic host may spend a lot of money on its opening ceremony and dewy-eyed we-are-the-world athletes' parade, but during football's month-long World Cup, there are everyday lessons on what being a global sport really implies. The Olympics give you an idea of their size, while a football World Cup is a crash course in perspective.
The way to a reporter's heart is...
Finally to the stuff that armies and reporters march on. Food. My colleague Jayaditya Gupta has been to more than a handful FIFA World Cups and says reporters must buy food and water inside the stadium. They are not allowed to carry stuff from outside into the venue or it will be confiscated at security. You can sneak in packed snacks at an Olympics, and water is generally available free somewhere. On one occasion, when a complaint went out to the organisers about the price of food items in the media canteen, the prices were slashed by half the next day.
Besides, we realise Olympic freebies are quite ridiculous. It starts with merchandised satchels just in case you come to an Olympic Games carrying your laptop in a plastic bag. One night in Athens, every reporter returning to their room in the media village found a well-packed, good-sized hamper of Greek food waiting on their beds.
Whatever else can be whined and moaned about cricket's mega events, the cricket folk make sure to feed the animals that very often bite them. One night at the 2015 World Cup, when relieved reporters stepped out of a never-ending MS Dhoni press conference post India v Zimbabwe at 1130pm in Auckland, they found a table laid out for them: hot Indian snacks, sandwiches, nuts, fruits and tankards of tea and coffee on hand. That's gold medal stuff.
At the U-17 World Cup, even the mighty FIFA did as the Indians do. They provided fridges with water in the media centre, a snack during the 5pm matches and a boxed dinner afterwards. On WhatsApp groups, a few raging battles have broken out over the choice of food and quality, but honestly, guys, in the kingdom of the skinflints...
They also serve
What each mega event always has are invisible miracle-working volunteers, whom you want to take home and hire as personal assistants. Kind, helpful and ready to run the extra mile over a ridiculous request. The U-17 World Cup is full of them, rushing about trying to ensure we are not grumbling or shouting and have water and food in the tribune (heard on finals day at the 2003 cricket World Cup in South Africa - "vegetarian or normal?") and get team sheets and post-match stats for today's match yesterday. We see you, we see you. Without you, we would have nervous breakdowns.
At the Athens Olympics, Greek volunteers at the transport hub were trying to placate Germans, Japanese and American reporters furious that they were going to be late for events as scheduled buses had not turned up on time. Seeing my friend and I stretched out on our seats observing the global meltdowns like anthropologists, one of the harangued volunteers turned to us.
"Are you from Cuba?" No, we're Indians. "Oh, but you understand the mentality, no?" Of course. At mega events, planning to be anywhere a couple of hours earlier is best. Buses can be late and losing your rag doesn't make them go faster.