When reporters meet their heroes (aka my experience with Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg) Part 1

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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

For part two, with Freddie Ljunberg go here

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 the 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 (and following the post-match press conference with Fire coach Carlos de los Cobos) I walked into the visitors’ locker room. It was announced that Henry would be doing a group interview, just like Ljungberg did. 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. Even fan-hero conversations can be awkward, so a fan masquerading as a reporter only increases the chances. 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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