Interview: Jonathan Wilson

Breaking into stadiums, illegal immigration and the “Venice of Africa”. Wilson reveals all. 

December 2014. By Sam Crocker

In terms of leading voices on African football in Britain in the last decade or so, there is only one to have a true claim to that crown. He has progressively ticked off every major publication in the country, each of whom have stood in front of him at some point in his career, slapping their forearms, begging him for that next hit of knowledge of football in dark continent. He is the man who described writing for Sandals for Goalposts as “the ultimate challenge, the final hurdle”, and we met up with him to tease him on what he could have become, on the premise that, if he did an interview for us, maybe – MAYBE – he might get a regular writing spot. The jury’s still out on that decision.

This man is Jonathan Wilson – the man who has been to so many African Cup of Nations that it would make even the most well-hydrated member of the SFG team feel a bit dizzy with excitement. Mali 2002, Egypt 2006, Ghana 2008, Angola 2010, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea 2012 and South Africa 2013 – Tunisia 2004 is the only one he’s failed to attend on his African football odyssey, as he prepares to enter his thirteenth year and seventh tournament.

But why Africa, you may be asking? With the intersection between Africa and English football much slimmer than it was in 2002, this was a time when liking African football was so hipster that it wasn’t even hipster – it was just plain weird. Was it a longing admiration for Mark Fish? A desire to have an early glimpse at Jay-Jay Okocha?

Sadly not. Rather it was the dotcom-boom child that gave Wilson his shot, as one of the first outward-looking British football sites was born.

“I started working for One Football in 2000 and covered the Asian Cup in Lebanon that September. It was basically a way of travelling. As for Mali 2002, I probably would have gone anyway, but with England being in Nigeria’s group that summer at the World Cup there was a clear financial incentive for the website”.

A foreign concept to the modern-day football fan with a BT Sport subscription, but One Football was one of the true pioneers in bringing overseas football to the shores of Britain, based on the vision of interest in foreign football growing. For Wilson, it was the opportunity to expand his horizons, combining an interest in the wider world with football, as he made his name not only in Africa but in Eastern Europe also.

“One Football was one of the first to have a global reach. Doing stories on match fixing in Romania, corruption in Serbia seems far more interesting and significant than some Fulham right back who strained his hamstring. That wider socio-cultural, socio-political aspect. It was a real good training ground – Matt Sprio (French football expert and commentator for Eurosport), Ben Lyttleton (European football writer and author of Twelve Yards), Marcus Christenson (football editor at the Guardian), Duncan White (former football correspondent at the Telegraph) – they were all there”.

Clearly a massive player in the shaping of not just the contemporary football journalism landscape but the interests of the modern fan, One Football most importantly introduced Wilson to Mali – a tournament he calls the “best Cup of Nations I’ve done”.

“The pitches were terrible, the football was awful, but the country and the vibe was sensational. Nice hotel, not expensive. Food really good and not expensive – could eat fish straight from the River Niger. It was great”.

As you’d expect, he is abound with tales of his travels in Mali, with the fact it was his first tournament really allowing him to appreciate all the fantastic quirks that African football has to offer. Breaking into a stadium in Segu and stealing the tactical diagrams of Carlos Quieroz’s South Africa team; visiting Mopti in the north-east, with its peeling sign on entry proclaiming it the “Venice of Africa” (“not much like Venice”, claims Wilson); being invited to Taribo West’s 28th birthday party at a church in Milan – you could see why he was so enamoured with it.

Indeed, covering African football would appear one of the more challenging jobs as a journalist. Characterised by delay, confusion and poor infrastructure, one would wonder why a man who has also attended his fair share of European Championships and World Cups would continue to bother. But rather it precisely these things that makes African Cup of Nations so special.

“Things actually happens at Cup of Nations, there’s always a story. You’re never churning out dull previews. At the end of the World Cup, you’re always scrabbling around for something to say, a line on something you’ve covered every aspect of. There’s always something to say when you go Africa. Plus access to players is much easier – though has got a little bit stricter since Mali – but there’s always a chance you can rock up to a team hotel and grab a player for a chat. You just have to accept that with transport you have to give yourself plenty of time, Wi-Fi will come and go, that sort of thing”.

Indeed, he goes onto demonstrate with a wonderful story about a journey during the 2012 Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. “So I’m on this flight from Libreville to Bata, with a connection in Malabo. The flight was delayed – plane was rerouted to pick up some Chinese labourers from Sao Tome – and we end up landing 10 minutes before my next plane is due to take-off. Realising my plane to Bata is just across the tarmac, I ask the air steward if I can just run across. They say, “it’s alright, we’ll grab you a car”. So me and these four other guys jump in this car, speed off, before suddenly realising we haven’t got our bags, so we screech to a halt and turn around. We then have to go into the hold ourselves, grab our bags, before jumping back into the car and heading to Bata on the plane. That wouldn’t happen at the Euros”.

As well as the quirks, of course there has been some wonderful moments for Wilson during his time at tournaments, including what he calls his “best ever moment as a sports journalist – the 2012 final between Ivory Coast and Zambia.

“Everyone in the press box was in bits”, he says, recalling that incredible night in Libreville. “Nobody was making eye contact, everyone was in the same state. The day before we went to a ceremony on the beach with the Zambian players, as they marched down in their tracksuits and laid bouquets of flowers, singing a Zambian song – the same one that Stopilla Sunzu was mouthing as he walked up to take the winning penalty. It was a beautiful moment”.

Of course there were the bad tournaments, describing Angola 2010 as his “least favourite tournament by a million miles”, with general awkwardness compounding the horrors of the Togo national team bus attack. But even that had bright sparks – recounting a bizarre tale of Algerian and Egyptian journalists trading blows across the press box, whilst he crouched under his desk on the phone to Irish radio.

An excellent man to talk to with an easygoing attitude, despite the obvious intimidation of speaking to representative from SFG, he speaks with such passion about his job – one that almost any football-loving human would take in a heartbeat. You realise that there is whole other side the Africa Cup of Nations, one that is not so easily packaged up and presented on the television or the newspaper – something that is increasingly difficult to appreciate in a growing world of televised football. But whilst the tournament can be a bit of an ordeal at times, the reward in terms of richness and diversity of experience seems more than worth it.

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