The weird World Cup optimism of England’s soccer press

England’s soccer team has a notoriously troubled history with the country’s media, and so it was no surprise to see relations sour before a ball had even been kicked at this summer’s World Cup in Russia. After star forward Raheem Sterling posted a picture of his M16 assault rifle tattoo on Instagram in May he was widely criticized in the press, with one anti-gun campaigner telling The Sun the tattoo was “sickening,” and that Sterling should be dropped because of it. Sterling responded that the gun was a reference to his father—who was shot dead in Jamaica when Sterling was a child—prompting BBC soccer presenter Gary Lineker to tweet that it’s “unique to [England] to attempt to destroy our players’ morale before a major tournament. It’s weird, unpatriotic, and sad.” The stage was set for another strained summer.

Since then, however, the strangest thing has happened: Relations have thawed. England coach Gareth Southgate has made himself and his players more available to the media than in tournaments past, and the press has responded with friendlier coverage than the team has enjoyed in years. Ahead of today’s first knockout game against Colombia, English sports media—and the nation it reports to—are gripped by almost unheard-of optimism.

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England brass apparently took inspiration from the NFL when, in early June, they allowed all 23 players on the roster to “speed date” the press without PR minders or limits on questions. The move didn’t go unnoticed overseas, with The New York Times reporting that while such openings are common in the US, they are “rare to the point of extinction in the guarded, coddled world of European soccer.” The result, according to The Telegraph’s Matt Law, was “certainly the most relaxed environment in which the squad have ever spoken,” and players took the opportunity to discuss previously taboo topics: Defender Danny Rose, for instance, talked candidly about a recent bout of depression triggered by injury and repeat family trauma. This atmosphere has continued through the beginning of the tournament, with players shooting darts and pool, and watching other teams’ games, with reporters.

The détente, however, has not held without stress. Ahead of England’s second group game against Panama last week, long-lens cameras snapped a piece of paper, carelessly flashed by an assistant coach during a training session, that appeared to give away Southgate’s selection plans. The coach tersely warned reporters after the incident that they had to decide whether they wanted to “help the team or not,” drawing rare rebukes from soccer writers. As Sam Wallace put it in The Telegraph, “Any successful movement, in politics, business, or sport, has nothing to fear from robust and open reporting. It trusts in its own methods and principles, and does not require anyone else to break theirs.”

The drama ultimately fizzled: Southgate walked back his comments, the names on the long-lensed teamsheet didn’t reflect the starting line-up after all, and a rampant England pasted Panama 6-1 in Nizhny Novgorod. But the tensions it exposed were telling. “[The press] wants to be playing darts with the lads and getting on and having jovial banter….But as soon as there’s a problem they’ll jump on you and hammer you,” England player-turned-pundit Danny Murphy cautioned on the BBC. “Make no mistake, going to mix in with the press is false. You do it because you have to do it, as players. You know they’ll come for you as soon as you have a bad game.”

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The warm atmospherics of the clubhouse are unlikely to matter if England falls short of expectations at this World Cup. While few expect the team to win the tournament, some commentators have already started grumbling following last week’s (inconsequential) 1-0 loss to Belgium, in which England fielded a much-weakened team. Failure to beat Colombia today could well upset the best-laid media plans of Southgate and his men. England expects; and when England is let down, the soccer press tends to sharpen its knives very quickly indeed.

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Below, more on coverage of England at this summer’s World Cup:

  • Pants-down press: The Guardian’s Toby Moses has this useful history of strained relations between England players and the media, spelling out how repeat sex and corruption scandals have moved media attention away from the soccer field in recent years.
  • At least England won something: Ahead of the tournament, the BBC tried to mathematically determine the negativity of the English press versus its rivals in other soccer-obsessed nations. Unsurprisingly, England topped this pessimism prospectus—though it only narrowly pipped Germany, which has surely moved ahead in the negativity stakes since its national team’s limp, group stage exit to South Korea last week.
  • The “radical sensibleness” of Gareth Southgate: The New Yorker’s Brian Phillips assessed UK media coverage of England coach Southgate. According to Phillips, one word keeps cropping up: sensible.
  • Wales of despair: Wales didn’t qualify for this year’s World Cup, but that hasn’t stopped some Welsh fans griping in front of the soccer. According to WalesOnline, they’re upset that “shamefully biased” English sports journalists and presenters use the pronoun “we” when talking about the England team.
  • Nailed-on defeat?: Superstitious observers have already written off England’s chances of beating Colombia today—because the match is being broadcast on ITV. The national team has won just 32 percent of its tournament matches on that channel since 1996, against a 57 percent win ratio on the BBC, The Sun reports. Sounds ridiculous? England’s only ITV foray of the summer so far was that game against Belgium, a 1-0 defeat.

Other notable stories

  • Veteran investigative journalist Brian Ross is out at ABC News, seven months after the network suspended him for inaccurate reports about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s outreach to Russia. Ross, whose longtime producer Rhonda Schwartz is also leaving ABC, says he isn’t turning his back on journalism.
  • News organizations have indirectly paid Melania Trump thousands of dollars under a bizarre licensing deal between the first lady and Getty Images, NBC News reports. The agreement grants royalties to the Trumps and mandates that photos can only be used in positive coverage.   
  • A mini communications shakeup at the White House: Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah will take a break from the press room to manage messaging for Trump’s Supreme Court pick, report The New York Times’s Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman.
  • The state of New Jersey is set to boost local media with $5 million in grant funding after Governor Phil Murphy signed a budget allocating the money. While it isn’t yet a done deal, Mike Rispoli, whose Free Press Action Fund campaigned for the cash, told CNN’s Brian Stelter: “We were told over and over that people wouldn’t participate in a campaign about strengthening local news, or that it wasn’t an issue that people would take action on. They did time and again.”
  • BuzzFeed’s Jon Christian writes that marketing executive Jayson DeMers boosted clients’ brands in articles for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and other top publications without disclosing that he’d been paid to do so.
  • For CJR, Gary Regenstreif lays out the work of Press Start, which crowdfunds independent reporting in countries that lack a fully free media. (Regenstreif chairs Press Start’s advisory board.)
  • We’ll be off tomorrow for the July 4 holiday. I’ll be at home in the UK celebrating a famous English victory (at soccer) and reflecting on the conscious uncoupling of our two great nations. Have a great day, and see you on Thursday.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.