Drug Tests, Street Crimes and Thieving Journalists: A Soccer Media Veteran Shares His War Stories Live

By Stephen M Zorio

Brendon Hanley, to put it simply, has seen a few things.

The accomplished writer and editor has spent many years traveling the globe while covering the world's most popular sport. He's been involved in covering the last five World Cups, he's the co-founder and managing editor of the influential African Football Media site, he launched FIFA's YouTube channel and has served as FIFA's content coordinator since 2010.

We reached out to Brendon to ask about his strangest and most dangerous experiences, how he developed his passion for football (especially African football), how technology has changed what he does and why the World Cup is so special.

Read on to learn about urine samples (yes), journalists with sticky fingers, getting mugged in Ghana and the most amazing moment he's ever witnessed.

Q: What's the strangest/most unexpected/dangerous thing that has happened to you while covering a sporting event?

Unexpected is a consistent. Strange: I once sat in the doping control room for a story after a World Cup match. It was after a penalty kick shootout between Spain and Ireland, and players from both sides were sitting in this small room watching the highlights together -- until the Irish kid, who had missed a penalty, just whispered "someone turn it off please."

by pamemundial via YouTube

In addition, one of the Spaniards couldn't produce his urine sample, so we sat there for half an hour until the doping control guy went in with him and said, "Come on, we go together. I go and then you go." And it worked.


Which major sporting event do you spend the most marketing/advertising dollars around?
I'd like to receive promotional emails.

Maybe more in the vein of the challenges of covering a live event, I once stepped away from my things in a press room, and someone stole my cell phone. So I went to one of the free phones and called, left the receiver off the hook and went and found the ringing phone, which was in another journalist's bag. I almost throttled him when he tried to deny it was mine, but I didn't report him (which I should have). I'd say there's an unwritten code on stuff like that between most journos, so that was shocking and then hilarious that I busted him. 

Dangerous: I did have five guys with pipes and bats jump out of a taxi they had stolen earlier in the evening and mug me and my two friends in the pitch black night on a dirt road on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana. There were small injuries, we lost everything and nobody responded to us at all. It was one of those moments when absolutely anything could have happened.


Accra ə | ˈ | k | r | ɑː is the capital city of Ghana, with an estimated urban population of 2.269 million 2012 | lc on and second ... via WikipediaWikipediavia Wikipedia at 2:30 PM

Q: Did that change the way you cover events and, if so, how?

Both of the above definitely made me more aware of everything in my surroundings and the arrangements beforehand. In terms of the Ghana trip, it ruined the rest of the experience of that event. On the flip side, it sort of pushed the boundary for how frightened I could feel in a foreign place, so I feel like it steeled me for almost any other random street crime moment to come.

Q: Which modern event do you think presents the most challenge in terms of covering it?

That depends what you mean. The World Cup can be an absolute marathon in terms of work and time. It's twice as long as the Olympics, and usually people are only covering a few of those events, which are staggered. Both of those have their own large-scale challenges, but are pretty well put together. It's the smaller events where you are on your own that can be tough if you don't know what you're doing or you're in a developing area.

Q: How much has technology mitigated the challenges of covering sporting events?

The difference is massive since the Internet obviously, although I honestly can't say I ever did anything on location on a real tight deadline pre-dial-up. I would say the worst times were in the transition when it was like, "Oh they have Internet or wi-fi, but it may or may not work," so you aren't prepared. Depending where you go, that can still be a challenge. I never 'count on' only one thing whenever possible. I try to always have a back-up to every contingency when it comes to technology. I've had too many computers, networks, etc fail at the worst possible times.

Q: As an American, what drew you to soccer/football to begin with?

I played growing up, but not even in high school. I liked it as a sport but didn't know anything about it really. It wasn't until I traveled around Europe and lived in Ireland in 1995-96 that I really came to understand the components of the game more, as well as the amazing culture and history surrounding the sport.

1994 FIFA World Cup

The 1994 FIFA WorldCup, the 15th staging of the FIFA WorldCup, was held in nine cities across the United States from 17 June to 17 July ... via WikipediaWikipediavia Wikipedia at 2:33 PM

I knew then, even more than during the 1994 World Cup, which seemed like manufactured excitement to me, that the game would only get bigger and bigger in the States as people were exposed to the fans and games at the highest level. I got addicted, and when I moved back to the States, I was able to write about world football for Americans and American soccer for the world.

Q: How did you get started as a writer?

I was lucky to squeeze in at the start of the Internet and before there was much of anything soccer here. I saw it as something I was passionate about anyway, and career-wise it seemed like an interesting niche that might blossom at some point. I have always done other writing and work as well, and my career path is really more about developing websites and engaging large audiences. But the soccer jobs have been the most consistent and I've been lucky to work with some great organizations and people. 

I've worked, somehow, on the last five World Cups in a variety of capacities as well as many other events, traveled quite a bit and watched a lot of soccer in my life. The pressure and challenges helped me grow up in a lot of ways, but at some point I sort of traded in the life of a journalist for broader media jobs.

Q: How do you account for your passion for African football and what has that meant for you?

I suppose I've always liked the underdogs in life, but that might too psychological. I have a good friend who is South African, and after the 2006 World Cup when people started to look at South Africa, we talked about Africa's hosting, growing, etc. For us, there was a gap in coverage of African soccer compared to everywhere else in the world. 

I also saw it [AFM] as a sort of development project, working with African journalists to develop contacts and their work enough to be sellable on an international level. I'm proud to say we've done articles on about 50 countries in Africa, most of which had local help. At the same time, it's a bit of a side project that keeps my fingers in editorial development, which is something I love doing.

Q: Do you have a favorite squad?

One of my favorite things about soccer, ironically, is that I don't really have a serious vested interest. I just like to watch good football, players and stories, so my loyalty moves all over. Naturally, I'm supportive of the African teams just because I know more about them and follow them, and many of them sometimes play an exciting brand of soccer as well. Ghana have been the most consistently good and fun to watch African team over the last 10 years or so, plus they really brought the continent together in 2010 -- ultimately in a tragic, but super memorable way.

The collective gasping sound in Soccer City when Asamoah Gyan's penalty -- which would have made them the first African team to ever reach the World cup semi-finals -- hit the crossbar against Uruguay with no time on the clock was probably the most amazing sound/moment I've heard/witnessed.

The most memorable match of 2010
by FIFATV via YouTube

That along with millions of entirely red clad Koreans flooding the streets of Seoul when they made the semi-finals in 2002.

Q: What sets the World Cup apart in your mind?

The global nature is great, but it's the level of devotion around the world that strikes me most. The entire world really just stops to watch. And for that month we're all watching the same thing, feeling thrills over the same player, hating the same villians, etc. Or at least we all have the same reference to discuss. 

The same is true with much of European club soccer, which is not as easy for Americans to get a grasp on because it doesn't have the nationalistic hook of the World Cup, but is certainly just as exciting as a standalone event. I love the sport generally -- the technique, the psychology, the way it can open and flower in totally unpredictable ways. The World Cup is the rarest, most special time -- to the extent where it really is always a four-year marker in my life.

Be sure to come back next week when Brendon and other experts offer their insights into the challenges of covering live sports in our live chat.

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