A couple of months ago I got one of those calls that will, if you thrive on being commissioned, lift your mood and keep it high for the rest of the day. It came from Brenda Mills at the American edition of Mens Health Magazine in New York. I have to admit I did not know Brenda at all, but what she had to offer was exactly the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile.
She told me she had been aware of my work for a couple of years and had been looking for an opportunity to give me an assignment ever since. However, as they don’t commission much of anything in Europe, it had taken this long for the opportunity to present itself.
This Is How we Roll
The story was to focus on 4 members of the United States world cup football team – yes, football football, not American football. One, Oguchi Onyewu, is at AC Milan and the other three, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard are at English Premier League clubs, respectively, Fulham, Hull City (on loan from Villareal) and Everton.
Milanello - The AC Milan Training Camp
Milan Dressing Room
Of course, the buzz of the call doesn’t last long because we are then into the considerable grind of dealing with the players’ reps, agents, sponsors and clubs. It’s at this point that you become acutely aware of the percentage factor in these stories. All of these people are not only major actors in the lives of the players, they are the main actors, and as such, they have a percentage stake in them. What we get, in both time and committment, is what’s left after they have all taken their percentage multiplied by the player’s interest and committment to the picture and then divided by their fitness level on the day of the shoot. If anyone out there wants to devise a mathematical formula that could encapsulate this, where:
Q=quality of photo, P=Player’s level of committment, F=Fitness level, A=Agent, S=Sponsor, C=Club then I’d love to have it because I could apply it to a whole load of people I have to deal with as a photographer .
First stop was Milanello, literally ‘Little Milan’, the training camp of AC Milan – although Stalag Luft would be a better description. Located about 40 miles north of Milan it had been snowing continuously for 24 hours prior to our arrival and when we finally found our way to the world’s remotest sports centre we were greeted by an armed guard at the gate and ordered to wait in a holding area until the director of the facility appeared, who, in a classically understated Italian way encouraged us to avail ourselves of the venue’s gourmet hospitality, which we did, tucking into a good three courses of beautifully presented, fit for the young kings to whom it’s normally served food, at the end of which we were presented with a bill. €10 each, cash only, no receipt.
Oguchi himself, however, was an utter gentleman and gave over 2 hours of his highly paid spare and injured time whilst his fit and healthy team mates, including David Beckham, were over in Manchester preparing to get battered 4-0 by United. So we got the run of the place and to see the stultifying ordinariness of the lockers of people like Beckham and Ronaldinho was fascinating. Beckham, I can tell you, keeps 2 pairs of trainers in his locker along with a toothbrush, toothpaste, some deodorent and Go 24/7 hair wax. All lined up in an orderly manner. Ronaldinho’s locker, by comparison, was an absolute tip. Boots everywhere and just a lot of piled up dross and magazines. A one man favella in the midst of a Milanese obsessive compulsive convention.
If we return to that equation for a minute I can tell you that the one factor that blew it apart was indeed Oguchi’s fitness. He was returning from a bad knee injury and refused, point blank, to do anything for our picture that might jeapordise it. No jumping, no running, no ball work. In the end I got him to play the part of central defender with me, the camera, as the predatory attacking player and he agreed to do that – track me and shut me down as I tried to get past him. You can see it in the video here.
With a full stomach and snow in our cords we left him alone in the northern Italian wilderness to return to the suburbs of south London for some face time with Clint Dempsey of Fulham – which was a shocking encounter, as his face had actually been mashed up by somebody else’s elbow the day before, in his first game back after a 7 week absence from injury. So, stuck with another reluctant thoroughbred, we pulled in a gang of kids from the school next to Fulham’s training ground to take him on in a friendly game of eleven eleven year olds against one big, bad Yank. First kick of the game though, an eleven year old schoolboy totally made Clint’s day by booting the ball directly into the meat of his American Heartland.
Two visits up north followed Clint, and at last we got a couple of players who were not only fully fit, but willing to give us a full committment to the images we wanted to try and get. First, Jozy Altidore, who is signed to Villareal of Spain but has spent this season on loan to Hull City, took us to a local park which was bathed in the most perfect English late afternoon spring light. He then let me photograph him doing scissor kick after scissor kick while I lay on the ground shooting from below and betting him that he couldn’t hit various targets in the park.
The final player, Tim Howard, the Everton goalkeeper was the only one we couldn’t shoot outdoors. It had rained so much up there that we we had no choice but to go into the huge indoor training pitch that Everton have and photograph him in there. Again and again he dived for the balls that we lobbed at him, while he endured Phil Neville making sarcastic comments from the sidelines and then, to cap it all, he took off his shirt. Beefy.