Sid Lowe
Tuesday October 5th, 2010

MADRID -- And so the iron curtain came down. No, not in East Europe; in Northeast Madrid. There is something cinema-esque, something consciously, almost laughably melodramatic about the way prying eyes are kept off the training pitch at Real Madrid's Valdebebas HQ, out near Barajas airport. It's hard to see it happen and not think: Smoke and mirrors. It's hard not to giggle and think of spies and the Communist bloc.

At 11 a.m. each every day, players emerge from the dressing room and head to the pitch. Above them, on the second floor, is a balcony, along which the media gathers. For 15 minutes, Madrid's players do some light jogging and maybe a few stretches. Jose Mourinho might stroll across and have a word with them. Mostly, though, they just chat and joke as they loosen their limbs. If you are really, really lucky, you might even see a football, but don't hold your breath.

And then after 15 minutes, reporters are ushered back inside into the press room. From the press room, through ceiling-to-floor glass windows, you can see the training pitch, stretching out before you, the four giant towers that occupy the club's former Ciudad Deportiva training ground in the distance. At least you can until, like an automatic door on the Death Star, a gray shadow rolls across the window; cleverly, the glass turns smoked, like an invisible iron curtain coming down. And then the light is shut out. Then you are shut out. Something is happening beyond the screen but you don't know what.

Once the screen goes down, once the glass changes color, journalists just sit and wait. An hour. Maybe two. Until the session has finished and a player, or the coach, comes out to offer a news conference.

That's what happens on a good day, anyway. Last Thursday was not a good day. Nor was last Friday. Last Thursday and Friday, Mourinho decided that he was not going to open the session at all. And as for a player talking to the media, forget it. They didn't need the screen; anyone who arrived at Valdebebas would be turned away at the gate. They wouldn't get near the press room at all.

The media had been warned by SMS, but still they were furious. Journalists who barely flinched at far greater injustices were suddenly up in arms. How, they insisted, as if that was their greatest concern, would Madrid communicate with its fans? Its fans? No, its owners: After all, unlike Chelsea, Porto and Inter Milan, Madrid is "owned" by its members. When, on the Saturday, Mourinho did appear before them at a news conference, the press shutout was the most important issue on the agenda. Why, Mourinho was asked, had he done it?

Madrid's media feared the End of Days. Access to players has been progressively curtailed over the last few years. When Madrid trained at the old Ciudad Deportiva, you could sit pitch-side, watch the session (the whole session), listen to a player talk in a news conference and wait in the car park for a word with a specific footballer. If he didn't want to talk, then fine, but you could ask at least. Only the day before the match would be a puerta cerrada, behind closed doors. And you would still get a news conference.

When Madrid moved, temporarily, to the RFEF's Las Rozas HQ while Valdebebas was being built, journalists feared that access to players would be denied. The club even arranged a meeting with captains Raúl and Guti and the media to discuss the issue. In the end, a passageway was set up at Las Rozas where you could grab a word with the players. And most sessions -- like the ones currently held at Las Rozas by the Spanish national team -- could be watched in their entirety.

The status quo was briefly maintained at Valdebebas, Madrid's new home: the whole session and a "mixed zone" by the exit door. Not for interviews but for informal conversations. Most of the players, it is true, would decide to leave out the other door and avoid the media altogether. And soon, that was formalized. The mixed zone was removed, access restricted, sessions shortened. There were some open sessions but mostly you'd see 15 minutes and the only player you could expect to see was the one penciled in for the news conference. Now, Mourinho was going a step further.

Asked about his decision, Mourinho went on the counterattack. "Have you got a pencil?" he shot back, reaching for a print out.

"Well," he continued, "take this down: In September, five sessions open to the media. Four hundred fifty minutes. Sessions open for 15 minutes: 10. One hundred fifty minutes. That's 600 minutes. Ten hours. There have been 16 news conferences. Seven of mine, plus Cristiano [Ronaldo], [Iker] Casillas, Xabi [Alonso], [Sami] Khedira, [Ricardo] Carvalho, [Karim] Benzema, and Marcelo. Then there's the [postmatch] mixed zone, [league and Champions League] news conferences, and promotional events with sponsors ... even this week, a closed-door week, there have been news conferences with me and Benzema, plus media events [arranged by sponsors] for Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Xabi Alonso."

"And that," Mourinho concluded. "is an objective fact. You have got used to having it too good."

Mourinho had a point. In England, for example, most media is limited to just 15 minutes and one news conference from the coach, once a week. You want an interview with a player? Chances are you have to help him sell something -- a computer game, a watch, a razor blade, an ice cream (all things that Spanish players have endorsed in the last week alone). And, besides, he insisted, his decision is a footballing one, not a media one. Why should his players have to deal with the media every day? Why should they provide the media with the ammunition to shoot at them? Why, on a more basic level, should he reveal his hand to the opposition coach?

Although Madrid claimed that the two closed-door days had always been planned, most suspected that they were a reaction to the angry furor from the media following Mourinho's news conference walkout in France two days earlier. Was it anger? Was it just revenge? Weren't we told that Mourinho stage-managed everything perfectly? That he loved the media? That he controlled it? that he used it to get his message out? Last week's two-day media blackout suggested that -- as this column argued a few days ago -- much of what is said about message control is simply rubbish.

Not that the fans really cared. They were entitled to ask: So what? If it is good for the team, why not? Ultimately, isn't that the aim? It was an argument that appeared reinforced by the weekend's result: Madrid battered Deportivo de La Coruña 6-1.

Superficially, it is a compelling argument. And ultimately, a club must look after its players and do what it thinks most helps it fulfill its objective: winning football matches. And, from the perspective of the director of communications, protect its image, controlling life at the club for players, coach and staff. But blocking the media may not mean more control. It may actually mean less. Is locking out the media really such a good idea? Is it really the catch-all cure?

Some players will tell you that they feel more relaxed in England than in Spain, where they barely see the media, where they can get on with the job in virtual anonymity. And it was England that Mourinho was hinting at when he told the Spanish media that, in fact, they have it good. Others will tell you the complete opposite. The media relationship is in many cases worse than in Spain and, as access has been slowly strangled, it is getting worse everywhere.

That is not to say that journalism is getting worse: Independence is often the best thing that can happen. But perhaps players and clubs should reflect. Perhaps, purely in terms of the clubs' own agendas, the Block Them Out mentality is shortsighted; perhaps they need a broader perspective. After all, they say keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

When you have nothing, you are more likely to invent something. When you have been kicked out, you are more likely to retaliate. When you think there's a good chance you won't speak to the player again, you are less likely to think twice before twisting his words. When a player, a press officer or an agent threatens to cut off access, aren't you just going to respond: "What access? I might as well do whatever I feel like"? When there is no relationship, there is no relationship to ruin. When you have to see a player tomorrow, the check is evident. The worst fabrications come from those who have never even met the players.

When you live on scraps, you are more likely to make a meal of it.

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