Banality commonplace among interviewees
So Luca Toni is no longer at Bayern Munich. I guess ever since early September, there was never any doubt it would come to this. That's when the Italian gave an interview in which he said that, contract or no contract, he was going be doing one, pronto, if the cruel and pigheaded new coach, Louis van Gaal, had the gall to pick one of those useless bunglers ahead of him.
Only that's not how he put it, of course. Probably sporting that ingenuous look he has perfected to convince referees the bad guys are out to get poor Luca - who could never harm a fly - he confirmed that "the coach decides upon the formation and the line-up".
Then, with a politician's fine sense of how to evade definitive statements, he added: "If I'm not given an opportunity, we have to see what the future brings."
Like a scorned wife talking about her rival in public, he laced an innocent line with poison: "Every coach has his own philosophy. Van Gaal doesn't talk to the players as often as other coaches. He's got his plans and ideas and wants them to be put into practice on the pitch."
With the sort of sincerity that strongly reminded you of Kevin Spacey's character in The Usual Suspects, he said: "Mario Gomez is a great striker. Miroslav Klose is also a great striker - same as Ivica Olic and Thomas Müller. We've got five great forwards. The coach has to decide who plays."
Finally, like a hideously wounded cavalryman who urges his comrades to spur their horses, save themselves and leave him to his unenviable fate, he sighed: "I don't want to become a burden to the club."
And all that translates into the threat to 'do one, pronto, if the cruel and pigheaded new coach, Louis van Gaal, has the gall to pick one of those useless bunglers ahead of Toni'. Or at least I think it does. Because who knows? Perhaps Toni meant everything exactly the way he said it. Perhaps he had no intention of dropping hints. Perhaps these were not at all demands shrouded in banalities. Perhaps it was really just that: banality.
After all, banality is what the vast majority of interviews with active football players are all about. (I'd hazard 90% as a conservative guess.)
The notorious Philipp Lahm interview in November, the one that caused all the furore and earned the player a hefty fine, proves that point - if proof is needed - by virtue of being an exception. Actually, the interview is illuminating rather than controversial, but the few critical remarks Lahm made about what he considers Bayern's lack of an overriding philosophy were blown out of all proportion precisely because it is so rare that a footballer says anything you don't expect him to say.
I'm not blaming the players. They have learned to be careful and, since they only very rarely stand to gain anything from being an entertaining interviewee, they will rattle off platitudes and commonplaces to get over with it as quickly as possible. It's become such an ingrained habit that many players have forgotten how to turn their bland mode off.
Some five years ago, I was talking to an international in a non-professional situation, meaning it was basically just small talk. And yet, for half an hour or so, he kept telling me that his team hoped to do well in the league, that a good cup run would be nice, that the club's success was more important than his scoring goals, that he was proud to play for Germany because it was every boy's dream and so on and on.
Then I asked about a photo that had caught my attention. "Oh, that's a falcon resting on my arm," he said. "My wife took the picture at dusk, which is why the photo is a bit dark." And he proceeded to tell me he had spent the holidays in Dubai and joined a sheikh who was training his falcons in the desert. "Those falcons are bred," he explained, "so they will forget how to hunt for prey if you don't teach them. The sheikh regularly takes ten or 15 falcons deep into the desert at dusk and has them hunt for doves."
That, I should add, was only the beginning of the story, which also included campfire prayers and hurtling at breakneck speed through a pitch-black desert in the dead of night, hoping the driver isn't as suicidal as he seems.
When he was finished, I said: "Thirty minutes ago, I asked you if you've done anything interesting lately and you said, 'No'. Now you tell me such a great story." He shrugged his shoulders and replied: "Well, I didn't think you'd be interested in that."
And that's true. Players, as a rule, don't think you're interested in interesting things. As far as they're concerned, the idea is that you ask them boring questions and are being given bland answers, which then get printed or published in some other way.
And that's true as well. The media - from newspapers and magazines to online portals and television or radio - are obsessed with player interviews and prefer even the dumbest drivel from a professional footballer to a feature story, no matter how clever and well written it may be.
I don't know how often I've offered a piece to an editor-in-chief, only for him or her to tell me: "Yeah, that's good and we might use it. In the meantime, is there a player you can get us an interview with? We don't care who he is, as long as most people will have heard of him."
I've always felt this attitude beggars belief, but maybe those editors are right. Maybe people do not consider interviews the bane of sports journalism but actually enjoy reading that a player wants to do well in the league and in the cup and knows that the coach decides upon the formation and the line-up.
Be that as it may, I'm quite thankful that I'm allowed to write about whatever comes to my mind in these columns and don't have to file interviews with football players. That means I thank both the editors for their open-mindedness and you for your loyalty. After all, you've just read my 200th column since September 2002, when I started out.