It’s the day after the night before and Switzerland is recovering from the collective embarrassment of being knocked out of Euro 2008 five days into the tournament.
To suggest the country is in mourning, however, is overdoing it: Switzerland has never exactly been a hotbed of footballing passion. Or, for that matter, the organiser of major sporting events apart from the odd skiing championship. It, and neighbour Austria, were jointly granted Euro 2008 because of their geographical position and their ability to generate a mind-boggling financial windfall for Uefa, the governing body of European football.
Which, perhaps, explains why a country used to hosting all manner of high-profile political gatherings has come up short when it comes to meeting the needs of some 3,000 footie media pundits who have poured in from across Europe to attend the second biggest football jamboree on the planet. You hear the same criticism wherever you go: The event is too big, the country too small.
One night last week, after finishing my rewrite for one of the nationals just before midnight, all roads surrounding the unfortunately named Wankdorf stadium in Berne were conspicuous by the absence of any form of public transport. No media shuttle as at previous events of this kind; no buses, no trams. Not even a cab.
With only one train an hour heading for my Geneva base and the clock ticking, I did something painfully embarrassing – flagged down a police car and, with all the chutzpah I could muster, begged for a lift.
But the real problem for the working journo is not what happens outside the stadiums but inside. All football writers are used to working under pressure. But just as a majority of the eight stadiums cannot accommodate more than 30,000 fans, nor can they cope with an unprecedented influx of reporters. As a result, as many as one-third are denied desk space at virtually every venue other than Basel and Vienna, working in an overflow area without power, laptops perched delicately on knees.
To add insult to injury, reporters who get a ticket via the match-day waiting list often end up with a desk seat – at the expense of those who have duly taken up their allocation beforehand. Get the picture? Size, or lack of it, clearly matters. The whole set-up is more lower-league than Premier League, organisers having got badly caught out by the reality of Swiss and Austrian domestic football: smallish crowds, therefore smallish stadiums. The scramble for desk space is matched only by prohibitive food prices in the media centres. Six quid for a bowl of soup is pushing it, even by Swiss standards.
Of course, priority should rightly be given to reporters from the competing nations. But was it reasonable after the France-Romania game that not a single English reporter could pick up a pass for the mixed zone – the area traditionally put aside to interview players, 44 of whom actually ply their trade in our domestic leagues? The clamour for coverage back home may not be as high as usual, with none of the usual news boys following the wags and scandals. Yet there are still 270 of us – and that excludes broadcasters.
For Robert Faulkner, head of media at Uefa and his team, England’s non-qualification has been a godsend, not in terms of the team or, inside the stadiums, the fantastic support. Both have definitely been missed. But his life has been made far easier by the absence of the news hounds. ‘There isn’t the usual pressure from sections of the English media almost waiting for something to happen, and then needing a reaction,’he says. ‘In that respect, it’s certainly quieter.”
Having made the point that the tournament is too weighty for the joint hosts’ mid-sized infrastructure, it is only fair to stress the positives, of which there are plenty: distances are relatively small, scheduling of press conferences are flagged up well in advance and there is free first-class train travel for accredited journalists.
No doubt about the most stress-busting aspect of all, however. Never has any major football championship been so media-friendly from a technical standpoint.
Every stadium and media centre offers easy-to-install wireless and internet access free of charge. You heard it right, completely free of charge. Just plug in and go to work – a far cry from the scandalous charges levied at the 2006 World Cup. Civilised it certainly is here, sometimes too much so.
The fan-fests, set up in all cities where matches are played, are far less atmospheric than two years ago. But there is still a buzz around the place that only the colour of a significant football event can generate. If only small really did mean beautiful.