Story highlights

Footballer writes about his life in the game under an anonymous pseudonym

He says relationship with the media has changed, especially since phone-hacking scandal

Player says journalists have got away with bad reporting practices for too long

He says footballers can get their own back and use media for their own purposes

Editor’s Note:

CNN —  

Wealth, fame, the adulation of thousands and constant media attention. The life of a footballer in one of Europe’s top leagues is far removed from that of the average man on the street.

Nowhere is that more true than in England, where Premier League stars are millionaires who have every inch of their lives scrutinized by a relentless media.

The distrust which exists between soccer stars and the media in Britain stems from a legacy of players’ addictions, violence, indiscretions and infidelity being exposed by newspapers, occasionally turning footballers into figures of ridicule and even hate.

Anonymity is one method players can use to shed light on “The Beautiful Game” – and this is exactly what one who tasted life in the English top flight has chosen to do.

Known as “The Secret Footballer, ” he writes about the life of a modern pro for British newspaper the Guardian.

He has agreed to be interviewed by CNN ahead of the new season beginning this weekend on the condition of retaining his anonymity, and here discusses how the relationship between footballers and the media has changed – especially since revelations of phone hacking – how players can get better transfer deals, the growing influence of social media and how he has funded his brand through “emotional blackmail.”

What would you want to ask TSF? Let us know in the comments section below or by tweeting the hashtag #CNNTSF.

How would you describe the relationship between sports stars and the media?

A friend of mine who runs one of the big weekly gossip magazines once told me that her publication goes out of their way to place David and Victoria Beckham on their front cover every week. The sales of the magazine increase significantly, regardless of what the story is about. In fact, she said in the absence of a real story they will simply “generate” one just to get their picture on the cover.

None of that is new, but what has changed is the amount of “celebrities” this practice now extends to. It seems every company wants to affiliate itself with a celebrity and, whether they like it or not, footballers are some of the biggest global celebrities around.

With the advent of social media everybody can now maximize their fame well beyond the 15 minutes Warhol predicted. It is now extremely difficult, if not impossible, to police the sometimes slanderous ramblings of others and, as a result, the newspapers suddenly found what they offered the public was rather tame in comparison.

It could be argued this mini war led us down the path to the Leveson Inquiry (set up to investigate phone hacking of British celebrities by News International) far quicker than we would have got there without it.

During that battle there were many casualties, as we saw from the amount of people that had their phones hacked by News International. These included friends of mine that, having spoken with them and a number of footballers since, have all but condemned the media and some of its practices when before they would have been fairly nonplussed.

The scandal has harmed the trust between “sports stars” and the media in this country and the media has only itself to blame. Everybody knew that parts of the media were less than trustworthy but I don’t think many of us realized exactly how deceitful and disgusting some of them were prepared to be.

How did the column come about and has it changed your opinion of the media?

Some time ago I was turned on to a column in The Financial Times called “The Secret Agent,” who worked in London sourcing real estate for the very wealthy. I became hooked on the idea of the column as much as anything else. His writing is excellent but I could never shake the thought of how huge a secret footballer column could be.

I kept in contact with many of the journalists that have wandered in and out of my career. It was only because I was involved in something with one in particular that I ran the idea past him.

I had planned to go to another paper but the journalist I needed to speak to was on holiday. My friend set up a meeting with The Guardian’s deputy editor. He was sold on the concept there and then, and he has backed the idea brilliantly ever since. It has been a great experience so far and I am thankful they have embraced it so warmly.

But it honestly hasn’t affected my relationship with the media in any way. I’d be lying if I said I had more respect for those in this industry now I’ve experienced a small part of it. Quite honestly, I never see much of it at all. I can’t walk into The Guardian’s offices and I can’t speak to anybody else about it, so all I do is write a column and submit it.

If you know the basics of how to compile a column of 1,000 words and you know your subject intimately, it is all quite straightforward. I’m sure once I’m uncovered my life is going to be hell for a time, hopefully it will only last for 15 minutes.

What’s it like being the secret footballer? Has it made you more suspicious? Are you constantly afraid of being unmasked?

It can be a lot of fun when people bring it up in conversation. On those occasions I let them ramble on before saying, “He’s an idiot, mate, you don’t want to take any notice of him.”

It can be scary. I have never had a great poker face on account of the fact I don’t play poker. I am sure many of them suspect I am “The Secret Footballer,” but it would still surprise them if he was in their own changing room because it is the sort of thing that always happens at another club.

I went into this knowing I could annoy a lot of people and I was willing to take the flak when the curtain came down. If you like it, great. If not, it really isn’t any bother to me. If The Guardian come to me and say they have had enough, it will not be a problem. It certainly won’t stop me pitching new ideas to them.

Is the relationship between sports stars and the media essentially dishonest?

I’m not sure if it is entirely dishonest. I think what the media would see as taking a liberty is perhaps what another person would call entrapment and/or slander.

There are some really interesting stories out there about players’ career paths and their backgrounds. It is a pity the red tops (tabloid newspapers) can’t embrace just a tiny part of that rather than focusing in on the controversy around football.

On the part of the journalists themselves, in any industry there are some very capable professional people who do a good job. There are also some people who go about the same business by stitching their subjects up. For too long the media got away with far too much.

I still find it odd a newspaper can plaster quotes about somebody all over a newspaper without attributing them to anyone. I would like to see an experiment where quotes from “sources,” “friends,” “an insider” etc were banned unless the person was named. Journalism would change overnight and it would be interesting to see exactly how.

What do you make of the reporting of transfer speculation in the newspapers and wider media?

I don’t see it as a problem, I am not sure how much harm it really does. If it is persistent then perhaps it might become a little tiring having to sit in press conferences and deny it every week.

Most of us players, or our agents anyway, will use the media to plant a story for the sole purpose of extracting an offer from a rival club. If you see a player linked to a club then the chances are the player is on the move – but not to that club.

It is the oldest trick in the book. Amazingly it can still panic a manager into putting an offer in on a player who he thinks he might lose out on.

If Manchester United were quoted on the London Stock Exchange then, in theory, its biggest rivals could easily plant stories in the media about its star players not being happy and looking to leave the club, thus affecting the share price and creating disharmony.

How has social media changed the relationship between players and the public?

It has brought a lot of the vicious comments which are shouted from the stands directly into the homes of the players. But it has also reconnected many fans with their heroes.

It must be amazing for a kid to have the chance to ask his hero anything at all, especially when he gets a reply. Personally, I’m all for it and I enjoyed it very much in the beginning.

This is the brave new world and Twitter is a growing part of how people have decided they want to communicate with each other, we would all be naive not to be a part of it.

How have you gone about building the “secret brand?” Are you worried the bubble may burst?

Don’t write it off yet as I have a book coming out. I’m constantly coming up with new ideas and it is our intention to evolve as we go, the secret brand is merely the starting point for building our platform.

It is a trusted brand because contributors are endorsed by major organizations and it is our aim to grow the website so the “secret” aspect is just a tiny part of what we offer. It is a great platform to build on because it’s new to the market and has a natural curiosity which draws people in.

Our traffic has continued to grow even after the season finished so it is an extremely encouraging start. Finding the funding was a challenge though, I had to pitch the concept to potential investors without giving anything away.

Most of the meetings consisted of me saying things like, “Look, how long have we known each other?” In the end it was funded by emotional blackmail!