When reporters meet their heroes (aka my experience with Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry) Part 2

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Journalists aren’t supposed to have biases, I get that. Makes a good amount of sense in theory. In practice, however, it’s safe to say that most people who cover sports were sports fans before they became sports reporters, and true sports fandom is not something that can just be tossed aside- thus, while it is noble to try to be completely objective, we all have biases somewhere in our heads.

I mention this because there is no point in denying that I’m a big fan of Arsenal FC in England’s Premier League, and I have been for nearly a decade. So when I told people I would be covering the Fire-vs-Red Bulls match last week- a match that featured Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg– people wanted to know what it was like to meet two former Arsenal stars. After all, it’s not every day that people get to meet legends from their favorite team.
By: Sam Svoboda
A little context first: both Ljungberg and Henry were right in their primes when I began following Arsenal in the early 2000s. Both were in the starting lineup when I was lucky enough to attend my first match, a 2-1 win over Everton on the first day of the 2003-2004 season. The team would not lose a match in league play that season, winning the title and earning the name of the “Invincibles”. It is no surprise that that team is still so special to Arsenal fans, especially considering the team’s lack of trophies since.

Fast forward to last week. Henry has recently joined New York after a few seasons in Barcelona. Ljungberg has just been traded to Chicago after playing the last year and a half in MLS with Seattle. I am in the second year of my multi-million dollar reporting contract with The Sports Bank. The stage was set.

After the 0-0 draw, the post-match press conference with Fire coach Carlos de los Cobos, (and before my interview of Thierry Henry) the reporters were told that Freddie was going to do one group interview and that was it. My admittedly optimistic plan for a TSB exclusive with the Swede was already shot down, but I and the other reporters shuffled into the Fire locker room and huddled around him. After what felt like just 30 seconds, we were told it was “last question” time. And just like that, I thought I had missed my chance.

But while the other reporters walked away, Freddie just stood there. He exchanged a few words in Swedish with a tall, blond (of course, right?) fellow, and then it was just me and him.

Stepping forward, I mustered something like, “Hey Freddie, sorry to bother you but- off the record- now that you and Thierry are both here, do you think any other Invincibles will come to MLS?”

I half-expected him to quickly brush me off and head for the showers, but he happily talked and joked with me for a few minutes about some of the old Arsenal players. (The exact contents of the conversation, while not very revealing anyway, will not be disclosed since it was off the record. See, I do have some journalistic integrity!) At the end of the conversation, he offered a hand shake and actually said thank you to me before I could thank him. I still have no idea what he could have been thanking me for, but I was higher than half of the hipsters at Lollapalooza as I walked out of the locker room.

Operation Invincible was only half-complete though. Luckily, as I walked into the visitors’ locker room, it was announced that Henry would be doing a group interview as well. Learning from my experience minutes before, I got ready to ask a question when I had the chance- I was going to ask him what it was like to play against Freddie after being teammates for so many years.

Of course, another reporter asked exactly that. My mind was racing, knowing that the interview would be over soon. I took the next chance I had: I said that Barcelona and Arsenal were two of the best passing teams in the world, whereas MLS was known for a “little more” (understatement, if you’ve ever seen either of those teams) more direct and “long ball” approach- did he have to adjust at all to the different style?

The first thing he said was “I don’t agree with you”- a perfect start- and he went on to talk about how every team he had seen in MLS had tried to play good, passing soccer. I don’t think he believes that the Red Bulls play the same exact same way as his two previous teams (really, do any other club teams in the world play as beautifully as Arsenal and Barcelona?), but looking back it was a poor question- what did I expect him to do, call out his new team and league for playing less attractive soccer?

I should have let it end there, but I felt like my question was a failure- asking another one could only rescue my reputation, right? I quickly asked if there was any difference in the physicality of the league. Henry raised an eyebrow and said, “Man, I played in the Premiership, go there and you know how physical it is…” With my head almost exploding after he misread my question and thought I doubted his ability to play against physical teams, all I could blurt out was “I just meant any difference?”

“No, no difference.” That was the end of the interview. Henry put on his headphones and strolled out of the room. I followed him out with the rest of the reporters, half dazed that I had just had a conversation with one of my sports heroes and half cursing myself for not having a good backup question prepared.

I actually caught up with Henry just a minute later (he had stopped briefly to congratulate the young boy who sang the national anthem). If it’s not obvious yet, I have a hard time letting things go- I decided it would be a good idea to put my hand on his shoulder and apologize for my leading question. Of course, he couldn’t hear me with his enormous headphones on and just kept walking, as a short man walking behind him gave me a look that said, “Bro, you can’t be touching the players.” And that was that.

So what did I learn? That the reporter-hero combination can be incredibly awkward (especially when the reporter does not have a well-thought out backup plan). This shouldn’t be surprising: it’s not easy being professional when your inner fan just wants to be completely in awe of someone. And while I’m not ready to judge Henry if he showed any annoyance (I did give him a bad question, and he had just injured his groin in the match), we all know that athletes do not always live up to our hopes for their personalities.

On the other side, Ljungberg could not have been nicer, when he had zero obligation to even talk to me, and it’s times like that when you think reporting is the absolute coolest job in the world. Even with Henry, despite the awkwardness of our interaction, I still can’t believe that I actually talked to “Titi”. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to talk to him again after a future Fire-Red Bulls match.

And hopefully that conversation will be less awkward than our first one. That shouldn’t be too hard.

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Comments

  1. Nice article!

    As a Freddie fan back in Seattle, I had to add that he seriously is a genuinely nice guy. I have many stories that I experienced first hand and from others who have met him, and they pretty much all echo what you experienced. He’s so down to earth and friendly.

    As an aside, a few of us online Freddie fans have been searching for the documentary done on him by Sky One back in 2003 called Up Close. Any chance you have a copy from your old Gunner fandom days? I’ve been looking for abou a year with no luck. :(

  2. samsvoboda says

    Thanks very much Ali, glad you enjoyed it.

    Unfortunately I do not have a copy of the documentary. My first thought would be to search for it on YouTube, but I’m guessing you’ve already done that… I will keep my eyes and ears open though, and post back here if I find something!

  3. It was worth a shot! I believe it used to be on Youtube but got removed. We’ve found part 1, but I think there’s something like 8 parts, ha! I’ll check back from time to time with my fingers crossed! :)

    Again, great article. It’s always fun to read the more personal experience of a journalist as opposed to traditional reporting etc. Not that that isn’t great too, it’s just a nice change…especially when it’s about my favorite player!

  4. samsvoboda says

    I agree… they are often a lot more fun to write as well haha

    and just wondering, how did you find this article? Just curious, seeing as this site is probably not extremely popular among Seattle sports fans (or people looking for soccer news, as much as it hurts to say it!)

  5. haha I suppose I can say it publicly without too much embarrassment, but I actually have a Google alert for articles that have “Freddie Ljungberg”in them. But it worked as the page is now bookmarked! :)

  6. samsvoboda says

    Cool, thanks- I’m not sure how much I personally will be able to write once i head back to school, but we will definitely try to have some more Freddie content for the remainder of the season

  7. Nice! I’ll definitely check back!

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