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The Mixed Zone sounds like a relic from cold-war Berlin. To sports journalists though, the phrase signifies something different. It is the place tucked away in some cranny of every World Cup stadium where the media comes into contact with the players.
Usually windowless, always jam-packed and sometimes harder to access than certain small countries, it is a strange parallel universe, part cat-walk, part reptile house, where the two sides pursue their love-hate relationship in snatched conversations on either side of a fence, and where the relative value of footballers bears little relation to their value anywhere else.
In the real world, for example, Owen Hargreaves, a journeyman England midfield player, is a figure of fun. In the Mixed Zone, he is worth his weight in gold. Why? Because he speaks German.
Steve Cherundolo, an obscure figure even by the standards of American soccer players, fulfilled a similar role for the USA team. Meanwhile, English reporters preparing for their country’s clash with Ecuador were drawn inexorably towards Aston Villa’s Ulises de la Cruz. “The referee was from England, no?” he commented wryly after their second-round match.
Some countries are more linguistically adept than others. Brazil, with their phalanx of stars from planet football’s biggest leagues, are nearly as dazzling in the Mixed Zone as on the pitch. “[Ghana] should have scored four or five goals, easy [against the Czech Republic],” Gilberto Silva told me in his quickfire, lilting English. “But we are ready for them.” And they were.
Most of the comments are, of course, of stultifying banality: “I hit it and it went in”; “We want to win every game”; “You can’t win every match 6-0”; that sort of thing.
Every now and then, though, something of value pops out. The Swedes proved particularly accomplished talkers. I liked Christian Wilhelmsson’s description of England’s John Terry: “He has long legs and he is always there when he should not be there.” Kim Kallstrom said enough in about three minutes (“Football is a lot about detail”; “Every game has its own life”) to mark him out as a future coach, if not a philosopher.
Some players rarely have much to say. Zinedine Zidane, majestic with a ball at his feet, is a hopeless duffer in the Mixed Zone. But the most valuable post-match performers are not necessarily the most prolix. Jose Fonseca stood for 20 minutes mulling over Mexico’s fate as a perennial second-round hard-luck story (“The wait is long – four more years.”) Hernan Crespo seemed especially concerned to specify the exact part of his anatomy that the ball had deflected off for Argentina’s first goal.
Even if they don’t talk, the experience is valuable for the body language and because you get to see the whites of their eyes, as well as jewellery, tattoos and other details: Paraguay goalkeeper Aldo Bobadilla, taut as a bow-string, twisting continually at the cap of his Coke bottle as he is questioned; the two stitches in Swiss defender Ludovic Magnin’s nose wound; USA captain Claudio Reyna’s long eyelashes; Andriy Shevchenko’s small feet.
The French, as you would expect, have been pictures of sartorial elegance, with pointy shoes and smart personal bags by the likes of Vuitton. I couldn’t help but contrast these with the blue bin liner slung over England left-back Ashley Cole’s shoulder after the Ecuador match. Sometimes, even in the global game, national stereotypes can prove remarkable resilient.
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