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Paranoia at the FIFA World Cup, or the similarities of sports coverage and war reporting

By Dennis M. Sabangan

Weeks before we left for Brazil, an American photographer gave a warning through his Facebook account that some of his cameras and equipment for the World Cup were stolen in an airport in Brazil.

That this scenario is devastating to a photographer is a gross understatement, since so much of our work relies heavily on the proper set of tools in our arsenal. The loss of equipment is crushing since it affects not only his profession but also his psychological welfare.

Equipment for FIFA World Cup, epa Manila office, Philippines 07 June 2014. epa / Ritchie B. Tongo

Equipment for FIFA World Cup, epa Manila office, Philippines 07 June 2014. epa / Ritchie B. Tongo

Learning about the theft took me back to my 2001 war assignment in Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attack in America, a few days before the Capital of Kabul was set free, other Filipino journalists and I secured a vehicle to get around the city. The only way we communicated with our driver was through sign language and hand gestures. He couldn’t speak English nor could we speak Pashtun. Despite that, we bravely entered Kabul, leaving our fate in the hands of some higher being. Batman, maybe. Unfortunately for us, no one seemed to be listening to our prayers that day, as five armed Afghans stopped our vehicle between Kabul and Jalalabad.

I whispered to my fellow journalists, “Damn, I think this is where we will die. But it’s so cold, at least we won’t even rot”.

There we were at gun-point and forcefully held up. Thankfully, I brought three wallets. I deceived them with my “Philippine Dollars”– in reality worth a lot less in their currency. I also had a similar experience when I entered Jolo, Sulo and entered the camp of the bandit group Abu Sayyaf to accompany the negotiator to free some German, African, Finnish, Malaysian and Filipino captives. The terrorists forcefully asked for my equipment. Good thing that those weren’t mine. Still, these are moments that we would never in our wildest dreams wish to happen. Yet perhaps due to the twisted nature of fate, we can’t avoid such mishaps.

So instead of being depressed, or be rattled in these situations, I believe these are opportunities where we can learn, and develop the critical skills needed to survive, whether in a literal sense, or a professional one.

Such is the irony that when things fall apart, we as people and as photojournalist get put together.

Anyway, the FIFA World Cup.

June 9, 2014, we arrived in Sau Paolo after more than 24 hours of flying. I flew with my collegues, Rungroj Yongrit from Thailand and Mast Irham from Indonesia. We met in Singapore before going to Brazil. From there, we ventured to our own assignments, they will go to Manaus while I will go to Belo Horizonte.

Belgium's Vincent Kompany (L) and Argentina's Lionel Messi (R) vie for the ball during the FIFA World Cup 2014 quarter final match between Argentina and Belgium at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, 05 July 2014. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

Belgium’s Vincent Kompany (L) and Argentina’s Lionel Messi (R) vie for the ball during the FIFA World Cup 2014 quarter final match between Argentina and Belgium at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, 05 July 2014. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

The air of excitement over a big coverage hung above us when we met. Yet along with that, there was also another feeling–the underlying fear of what we may experience when we get there.

From Sau Paolo, I flew to Belo Horizonte. Even then I admit I felt fearful bringing my equipment out. It’s my habit that all my important things, particularly cameras, lens and some clothes are hand-carried so that whatever happens with the equipment I check in, it’s not something that I will primarily need covering the World Cup.

In Belo Horizonte, I was with my partner Peter Powell from Liverpool, Great Britain, from where modern soccer emerged. Peter is passionate over and familiar with covering football. It’s perhaps understandable that he asked me if football was a popular sport in the Philippines.

I said that boxing and basketball are the most popular sports in the Philippines. But in recent years, some provinces and sectors have begun to appreciate and keep a close watch on football. I even joked that if our former colonizers had taught Filipinos how to play soccer instead of basketball, then Lionel Messi of Argentina with a height of only 5’7” or Neymar of Brazil with 5’9” would have a Filipino to match their skills. Still in a country that is heavily influenced by American culture, basketball continues to be the sport of choice, no matter that Filipinos lack the height to be truly competitive at it.

At the World Cup, our first coverage was Match 5, Colombia vs Greece, where Greece lost with the score of 3-0. But it wasn’t just the losing Greeks who cried that night. Along with them were two photographers from an International agency, after two sets of lens and cameras were stolen – a unit of Canon 1DX 400mm, 1DX and 70-200 were lost from inside the Media Center despite it having tight security.

Lionel Messi (C) of Argentina in action against Andranik Timotian (R) of Iran during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group F preliminary round match between Argentina and Iran at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 21 June 2014. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

Lionel Messi (C) of Argentina in action against Andranik Timotian (R) of Iran during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group F preliminary round match between Argentina and Iran at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 21 June 2014. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

Their gear was stolen while they were editing at the Stadium Media Center. It certainly sparked paranoia in all of us there. After all, who else can enter the media center aside from accredited FIFA officials and the media? Minutes after the incident, everyone was already alerted.

I was going to the canteen when a photographer informed me that somebody lost equipment. I immediately went back to my desk and kept all my things in my bag and locked it. It is annoying and heart-breaking that this kind of situation can occur. For us in such an active profession, it can also be paralyzing– even if you get really angry, you can’t do anything about it. Hopefully this equipment were insured and the company can easily replace them.

Germany's Thomas Mueller (L) and Brazil's Luiz Gustavo (R) vie for the ball during the FIFA World Cup 2014 semi final match between Brazil and Germany at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 08 July 2014. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

Germany’s Thomas Mueller (L) and Brazil’s Luiz Gustavo (R) vie for the ball during the FIFA World Cup 2014 semi final match between Brazil and Germany at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 08 July 2014. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

While reflecting on what had just happened, I couldn’t help but think that if the thief victimized some poor Filipino newspaper photographers (photographers whose newsroom change equipment more slowly than the passing of four leap years) then they would have no choice but to stare blankly at the walls. That or, the more logical alternative, they will always fall in line in the Canon Booth to have temporary equipment to continue covering the World Cup. Still, even if the equipment can be replaced, you will go nuts because you’ve already lost your footing even as the coverage is just starting.

After the second theft, you would notice that most of the journalists, especially photojournalists, became extra vigilant and careful. Sometimes even if they needed to go to the bathroom, they would bring their equipment, while others take turns in taking care of the things if people need to leave the table. With my team, we often kept our things locked, if we had to leave them. There was a shortage of lockers because everyone wanted to keep their things under lock and key, afraid that they might get stolen.

During the next days of coverage, I realized that the threat does not only exist inside the media center, but also outside in the streets of Brazil. If we needed to shoot for a feature, we would do it from inside a taxi. That’s how it really is if one isn’t familiar with the culture, even more so if the city you are covering has a high crime rate.

After staying for more than a month in Brazil, we have covered 6 matches. Nearing the quarterfinals in July 5 in Brasilia, our two teams was beefed up to four, with Shawn Thew from the US and Robert Ghement from Romania completing the lineup. We flew to Belo Horizonte to finish the last few chapters of our mission in Brazil. The semi-finals between, Brazil and Germany was particularly memorable, with Germany beating the hosts 7-1 in a crushing defeat.
All told, we will bring the memories of the 2014 World Cup with us. As for the the photographs, there is a certain joy to the feeling that we have taken part in recording history using the photographs we took during the games.

#selfie at FIFA World Cup: Shawn Thew, Robert Ghement, Peter Powell, Dennis M. Sabangan before the FIFA World Cup semi final Brazil vs Germany  in Belo Horizonte. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

#selfie at FIFA World Cup: Shawn Thew, Robert Ghement, Peter Powell, Dennis M. Sabangan before the FIFA World Cup semi final Brazil vs Germany in Belo Horizonte. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

Perhaps we can’t avoid the nightmares that come, when thinking of the possibility of losing our own equipment during such an important coverage. That feeling of paranoia has been healed in part by the happy experiences working together. Even better than memories, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn even more as a sports photojournalist.

Ah, the football. The beautiful game.

Brazil's coach Luiz Felipe Scolari (C) celebrates with Neymar (R) after winning  the penalty shootout during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Brazil and Chile at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 28 June 2014. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

Brazil’s coach Luiz Felipe Scolari (C) celebrates with Neymar (R) after winning the penalty shootout during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Brazil and Chile at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 28 June 2014. epa / Dennis M. Sabangan

As the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said,

“You can say anything you want, yes sir, but it’s the goals that sing, they soar and descend. I bow to them. I love them, I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down. I love words so much. The unexpected ones. The ones I wait for greedily or stalk until, suddenly, they drop. Vowels I love…They swallowed up everything, religion, pyramids, tribes, idolatries just like the ones they brought along in their huge sacks. Wherever they went, they razed the land. But goals fell like pebbles out of the boots of the barbarians, out of their beards, their helmets, their horseshoes, luminous words that were left glittering here. Our language. We came up losers. We came up winners. They carried off the gold and left us the gold. They carried everything off and left us everything. They left us the goals.”

Dennis M. Sabangan pictured from the media tribune covering Argentina team training during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group F preliminary round match between Argentina and Iran at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 20 June 2014. epa / Peter Powell

Dennis M. Sabangan pictured from the media tribune covering Argentina team training during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group F preliminary round match between Argentina and Iran at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 20 June 2014. epa / Peter Powell

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