Verge Meets: Rory Smith, the New York Times

Verge had the opportunity to ask Rory Smith, the Chief Soccer Correspondent for the New York Times, about his career and 2018 World Cup predictions.

How did you get started as a journalist?

It’s what I’d always wanted to do, as far as I can remember. I did a gap year before university and went and worked for an English-language newspaper in Bolivia – they still owe me money, which is excellent training for one of the key skills you need as a journalist: waiting to be paid – and then worked on student newspapers, too (this was in the early 2000s, so not quite pre-digital but definitely not post). I had another year travelling afterwards – I thought I deserved it – and then was fortunate enough to be accepted on to a training scheme at the Mirror Group. That taught me shorthand and media law, and then I had three years working across their various titles in London, Belfast, Manchester and Dublin.

What makes you passionate about soccer?

That’s a surprisingly difficult question. I think, basically, I like the fans: I like seeing collective emotions played out, the noise and the colour and the sense of occasion. As a journalist, I like the way it bonds everyone together and also sets them apart: it’s a great way to talk about all sorts of issues that can be quite elusive, or ill-defined.

You’ve been with the New York Times as Chief Soccer Correspondent for almost two years now. How has your role changed in this time? How do you think you have grown?

I’m probably not the best person to assess if I’ve grown or not, to be honest, but it’s definitely been an interesting two years. The role maybe hasn’t changed, especially: I’ve just started to understand it better and refine it a little. It’s the first soccer-specific role the New York Times has ever had, so it was always a bit of a blank canvas. The aim wasn’t to compete with the more regular sources of soccer journalism (the Guardian and the rest of the papers in the UK, and places like ESPN in the US) but to carve out a niche for ourselves as a place that would do different, or deeper, stories than everyone else. It’s quite hard, consistently beating away from the current, but over the last two years I think we’ve found a way of doing it relatively frequently: either totally offbeat stories, or slightly different angles on more familiar subjects.

Which teams should we be watching out for in the World Cup?

The winners will come from the cadre of usual suspects – Germany, Brazil, Spain, maybe France – but the best thing about these tournaments are those teams that light up the first few weeks, before the superpowers take centre stage. I have a sneaking feeling the African teams might do better than expected: Morocco are well-organised, Senegal have some really high-quality individuals, and of course Egypt have Mohamed Salah, who has captured the imagination more than any player in Europe this season. Peru should be a good story to follow, too: it’s their first tournament for 30 years and they have what is by far the best kit.

Are there any surprise teams to look out for?

It depends what you mean by surprise, really. Over the last decade or so, because of the rise of social media and the ease of availability of information, the days when Bulgaria could stun everyone by reaching the semi-finals (as they did in 1994) are pretty much over. I’d expect the quarter finals to be pretty much exclusively the obvious names, with maybe one or two of the usual outsiders – countries like Uruguay and Belgium, the dark horses who are talked about so much they aren’t really dark any more – there, too. Senegal are as close as I can see to a real surprise package, but now I’ve said that they’ll probably get knocked out straightaway.

Who do you think will have a standout performance?

There’s always one name who comes through at a World Cup to join the ranks of the genuine global superstars: in 2014, it was James Rodriguez of Colombia, and in 2010 it was probably Mesut Ozil (they tend to end up with a transfer to Real Madrid at the end of it). Marco Asensio of Spain could be this year’s – though he’s already at Real Madrid – or someone like Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech, if they stick around long enough for him to impress.

Do you have any predictions for who will be the top scorer?

Someone from an easy-ish group whose team makes it as far as at least the quarter-finals. Luis Suarez, maybe. Or possibly Harry Kane. If not, then Thomas Muller. It is normally Thomas Muller.

How do you find non-traditional story ideas, like your story about how an Italian disco song became a Liverpool anthem? How will your World Cup coverage be different from traditional match reports? 

That’s the big challenge with the way we cover soccer: to come up with ideas that aren’t esoteric for the sake of being esoteric, but that are different to what people might find elsewhere. A lot of it is just what interests me at the time, or patterns I notice (I’m currently fascinated by goal kicks). Social media helps, too, because it provides odd connections between stories. I try to think about things that are taken for granted within soccer culture and then unpack them a bit, too: we have that privilege because we’re writing for a mixed audience, of people deeply familiar with the subject and people who are a little newer to it. The World Cup will be the same: we’ll do plenty of stuff from the games, but we’ll try to take a different approach to it; and there’ll be plenty of stories from the fringes of the tournament, away from the pitch, too. The problem with World Cups is always that there’s too much to write.

What’s your advice for students who want to go into sports journalism?

Read, and write, essentially. I’m always really conscious that I started in a world that is markedly different to the one that graduates now will find: much more hierarchical, much less disrupted, much clearer but less chaotic, and therefore less democratic. There are so many more opportunities now to make a career of writing about sport, but that means there’s also a lot more competition, and a lot less certainty. So: read as much as you can, and not just things you’re interested in: everything. Work out who you like and why you like them and what they do that works. And then write: that’s the only way to hone your style (with the caveat that I’m still very much a work in progress on that score). The other thing is to remember that what really matters isn’t your opinion or the beauty of your prose but the story: however the content is delivered, the story is the key thing. Journalism isn’t art, it’s industry: the finding of information, the packaging of information, and the delivery of information. There’s so much brilliant writing on soccer now, but increasingly it lacks that one ingredient: you have to tell people one thing, hopefully more, that they might not know.

What are your plans for after the World Cup? What should soccer fans look forward to after the World Cup?

A break, some sleep, and persuading my son and dog – eight months and two, respectively – to remember who I am. I’ve promised my wife a few weeks in Italy straight afterward, and promised my editor that there’s a few stories I can do while I’m there. That’s the thing about soccer: it never ends, not really. There’s always more stories to do.

The New York Times has launched a limited-run World Cup newsletter, led by the New York Times Opinion team, with curation and commentary by the writer, poet and football fan Musa Okwonga. Sign-up to “Offsides” here.

Read more from Rory in his New York Times column “On Soccer” or follow him on Twitter @RorySmith.