“The 7 Questions” is a new sports questionnaire — the Eephus way of catching a snapshot of the fan’s life. From writers to artists and beyond, we bring you answers every Monday morning (and sometimes Wednesdays too, I guess).
Today, we get the answers from Jonathan Wilson, whose excellent new book Angels with Dirty Faces: How Argentinian Soccer Defined a Nation and Changed the Game Forever can also be sampled here on Eephus. His book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics is another Eephus favorite and highly recommended for all die-hard football fans. Wilson’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, and World Soccer, and he is the editor of The Blizzard. We highly encourage you to follow him on Twitter too.
1. When was the last time sports made you cry?
When Zambia won the Cup of Nations in 2012, beating Cote d’Ivoire in the final in Libreville, the first time they’d played there since the plane crash that killed the Zambia side in 1993 just off the Gabonese coast as they headed to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal. Nobody expected Zambia to win the tournament but as it went on a strange momentum gathered behind them. After the semi-final, I interviewed the great striker Kalusha Bwalya, who hadn’t been on the plane in ’93 because he played in the Netherlands and was making his own way to Dakar, and he said that there wouldn’t just be 11 Zambians on the pitch in the final but the ghosts of those who died. It was one of those occasions when, although you know that’s not true, you sense that the players on both sides slightly believed it. The day before the game there had been an incredibly moving ceremony on the beach that was the last point of land the plane crossed before it went down, with the players laying bouquets in the waves and singing. The final was impossibly tense and went to a long, long shoot-out (nine kicks each).
As Stophira Sunzu stepped up to take what turned out to be the winning penalty he was singing the same song. I think the whole press box (Ivorians excepted) was in tears when it went in.
2. What’s your most treasured piece of sports apparel or memorabilia?
I don’t have much. I have some original notes from the great (and deluded) tactical theorist Charles Reep and a couple of thousand books but nothing in terms of memorabilia. What I do have, though, is the ball with which I took five wickets (my only five-for) in a game for my cricket team, the Authors, against the Bodleian Library last year – the biggest (positive) impact I’ve had on any sport I’ve played in since I was 17 and playing in goal for my school hockey team.
3. Competed in any sports lately, at any level?
I had to give up (field) hockey because of a hip injury three years ago, but I still play cricket for the Authors. It’s a side set up by Arthur Conan Doyle. You have to have written a book to play for them.
Past players include PG Wodehouse and JM Barrie. In theory it’s not very serious, tootling along to various pretty villages and stately homes, but my lack of wickets this season has haunted me. I also play for the Sunday Times team.
4. What’s your desert island sports movie or book?
Probably When We Were Kings — just a brilliant documentary, partly because the event itself was so great and so bizarre, and partly because of the interplay between George Plimpton and Norman Mailer.
5. What do you like to eat and drink while you watch sports?
When covering football, you’re beholden to the home side. Catering has improved massively over the past ten years at Premier League games.
I’d say Chelsea is best for the variety of their cold buffet, then Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham in that order. Manchester United’s press facilities as a whole are pretty disappointing for a club of that stature. There’s nothing I like better, though, than going to county cricket with a proper hamper: a couple of bottles of wine, a selection of cheese and charcuterie, pickled onions, fruit, and crusty bread.
6. What’s the greatest length you’ve gone to watch or attend a game?
In 2006, I covered the UEFA Cup final between Sevilla and Middlesbrough in Eindhoven, hung around the stadium till I got kicked out at 1 a.m., slept at Eindhoven station and got the 5 a.m. train to Schiphol, then got a flight to Luton, bus to the station, train to West Hampstead, tube to St John’s Wood, and walked, reeking, into the press box at Lord’s cricket ground for the first day of England v Pakistan with about an hour to spare.
7. Ever caught a foul ball?
I’ve only ever been to three baseball matches — one in Boston, one in Tokyo, and one in Cienfuegos, Cuba. I have, though, touched the ball twice at football matches: once as a fan at Sunderland v Nottingham Forest in 1991 when a kid next to me grabbed for it and flicked my glasses onto the side of the pitch; and then last month at Tottenham v Liverpool as the ball was belted into touch as the final whistle went, hit somebody to my left and spun into the gap between my desk and the seat in front. At Spurs you always feel you’re in the firing line because the press box is so low. The Guardian‘s Dave Hytner once headed a ball back onto the pitch from there.