Japanese broadcaster wastes golden opportunity in Lionel Messi interview farce

The disastrous post-match interview of the Barcelona star, conducted by Japanese comedian Sanma Akashiya, represented a new low for the country's football broadcasting
By Dan Orlowitz, Japanese Football Editor

Even the world's most skilled strikers know the agony of letting a sure thing slip away; be it a breakaway called offside, a cross that lands just short, or worst of all, an open goal shot that sails metres over the crossbar.

Japanese broadcaster Nippon Television (NTV) can surely sympathise with the latter following a bizarre coda to Sunday night's Club World Cup final that saw the station get the chance of a lifetime - a live interview with Fifa Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi - and waste it in a matter of seconds.

The scene was NTV's on-location studio, set just off the pitch of Nissan Stadium. Barcelona players were celebrating following their 4-0 victory over Santos to win the 2011 Club World Cup, and the station's touchline reporters and studio commentators were buzzing over word that a Barcelona player would appear for a live interview.

The player turned out to be Messi, who after scoring a brace in the match was declared the tournament's MVP. The accolade, given by tournament sponsor Toyota, came in the shape of a golden key large enough to serve as a corner flag.

Still carrying the key, Messi was pulled away from his celebrating team-mates and ushered toward the NTV studio. There he was greeted by "host" Sanma Akashiya. Known simply as 'Sanma', the variety show-runner is one of the most popular comedians in Japan. In a country devoid of any genuine stand-up comedy, this is a bar set so low that even someone with the accuracy of Messi himself could not shoot under it.

Upon the player's arrival, the scene deepens into such farce that one almost cannot watch the video, which has been viewed online nearly a million times since Sunday night, without grimacing:

Sanma's fellow "pundits", tittering like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

Sanma, awkwardly attempting to put a jacket around Messi's shoulders.

Messi, holding what appears to be the key to some forbidden city, refusing the jacket and appearing as uncomfortable as Santos' players did trying to defend him.

Translators and handlers, lost and confused at the apparent lack of any foresight or planning by the programme's director, urging the commentators to ask a question, any question.

Then after a minute of this, finally, a question from Sanma, who surely had a thought provoking question prepared for such a momentous occasion.

"Everyone else is probably asking you about soccer, so I want to ask what you will do when you get old?"

Perhaps not.

Messi, ever the sportsman, managed to respond, even as his translator struggled to put the sentence into a tone not nearly as insulting.

"I have a lot of time until retirement, so I will think about it then," the star replied.

And then Messi took his key and walked away to rejoin his team-mates, having answered just one question after 15 minutes of build-up by salivating NTV staff.

This is, sadly, far from the usual state of affairs in Japanese sports broadcasting. TV comedians, often in pairs known as "o-warai combi," are inserted into the broadcast by whichever station has secured the broadcast rights in order to promote their latest insipid program. They usually provide little beyond fanboy-ish enthusiasm and endless repetitions of their silly catch-phrases; certainly one cannot expect anything resembling intelligent commentary on the game itself.

Usually these comedians are not let within a mile of the players, and the rare exceptions usually involve Japanese players who are game enough to smile, answer banal questions that have almost no connection to the match that just took place, and endure until the commercial.

But not this time. With the world's most famous player in the spotlight, NTV had an opportunity to demonstrate just how capable Japanese broadcasters are of serious sports journalism. As it turns out, they're about as capable as Santos were in the final third on Sunday night. And with YouTube and other websites allowing the footage to spread at the speed of a "like" button, for the first time football fans outside Japan can share in the embarrassment.

In a country where controversial calls or actions are rarely replayed or discussed by commentators, football journalism is more often than not a suicide pact between journalists too afraid of losing insider access to bite the hand that feeds them, and fans too cynical to demand better.

Perhaps after this flub, which has made headlines as far away as Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, Japanese football broadcasts will take a step back from their shoddy packaging as entertainment for the masses and toward sanity.

Perhaps they will see the hundreds of comments where Japanese fans of the beautiful game apologise, in their native language or the best English they can manage, for the shame that NTV has brought to their country's journalistic reputation.

Or perhaps next year Sanma will return, buck teeth and all, ready to kick another easy shot over the bar.

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