Graham Hunter on a life in Spanish football

Paul Hyland 20 November 2015

Graham Hunter left Fleet Street in 2002 to follow his dream of working as a sports journalist in Spain. He has since worked as a correspondent for Sky Sports, BBC Radio, FourFourTwo and has even translated for the Spanish national team.  He spoke to TCS about his career, his experiences establishing himself as a journalist in a foreign culture and the differences between sports journalism in Britain and abroad.

I’m most interested in how this thirteen-year resident of Barcelona found himself in Spain in the first place.  ‘This’ll be no use to you whatsoever,’ he laughs, ‘But I flipped a coin!  I left London in 2002 and my wife says, listen, you’ve always wanted to try Spain, let’s give it a try.  I had no real language skills, no contacts, no work.  There’s no prospective journalist out there who I’d urge to take the same path as me, because it shouldn’t have worked out.’

Hunter’s trajectory as a journalist has coincided with a growing interest in the media for journalists with linguistic skill. He even relates a time when language skills were an unwelcome addition to a journalist’s CV: ‘When I was at the Scottish Daily Mail and I used what tiny language skills I had to get stories from foreign journalists, I was regarded as some sort of witch!  To share information with somebody who was a correspondent for Bayer Leverkusen or Sevilla or Mallorca was literally cheating.  Now you can’t wake up in the morning without umpteen websites giving you a digest of what’s been said in the media.’

A fascination with language characterises his journalistic career.  His adopted home of Barcelona is famously a bi-lingual environment, with many natives using Catalan as the lingua franca of their daily lives.  I suggest that that exposure to two foreign languages must have made his route all the more difficult, and am taken aback by the answer.  ‘You’re talking about what I should have done!’ He shrugs off the question with a laugh. ‘I wanted to enjoy my life.  Learning two languages didn’t appeal to me at all, so I chose to learn castellano [Spanish] and told every Catalan friend that they had an ugly language.  It was like two dogs fighting!’

‘When I came to Spain on holiday I would always read the football papers, so you’d learn terms like delantero, larguero or fuera de juego.  Then it’s just a simple case of practice to be able to use football terminology. I found that a really good way because in your basic level communication, because when you’re trying to get a level of understanding with people, what you can do, particularly when you’re wielding a tape recorder, is start them speaking. You then go back and you’ve then got time to slowly listen to transcription and you get what you get! 

‘People will be screaming at your newspaper ‘Go take some f—— lessons!’ I’m just stubborn, I said I’d learn it organically.' 

Having established himself quickly with the language, and giving his first radio interview in Spanish after just four months, Hunter found Spain a more hospitable environment for a sports journalist: ‘When I got here the vast majority of football club training sessions were open.  That meant you could go and watch and learn, and therefore your questions would be far more informed.  In Britain, that’s been broken down because the media weren’t strong enough to fight back and say ‘You mustn’t exclude us, you can’t exclude us.’

Striking his how he ascribes his own success to a series of ‘flukes’, crediting his first break into Spanish football to FC Barcelona’s presidential election in 2003. ‘They wanted it to be very internationally aware, they wanted to open their club marking to international audiences,’ he explains.  This was followed by a five minute slot on Sky Sports’ highlight show, Revista de la Liga, before David Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid in 2003 gave British journalists like Hunter increased access to one of world’s biggest clubs.

But bigger was still to come.  Euro 2008 came along and the Spanish FA had neglected to appoint a translator to liaise with the foreign media.  Hunter found himself asked to step in: ‘For that help I gave the Spanish FA, they gave me a little studio behind the stage and let me interview the players on film every day.  So that played out very nicely. So again, by fluke it worked out really nicely for me, and that helped me to get to know the players really well, and my relationship with them blossomed from there.’

Hunter is indeed renowned for his close relationship to some of Spain’s biggest stars, in particular the marauding Barça centre-back, Gerard Piqué. ‘Well, that’s another fluke,’ he explains. ‘I used to play five a side.  We’d have a beer after the match and there was Piqué aged 16 with his mates and we got talking.  I met him before he was even well known at Barcelona.’

Fluke though it might have been, Hunter remains keen to impress upon me that as a prospective journalist, I am in charge of my own destiny. ‘Not everybody’s going to bump into Piqué outside a hot dog bar.  But you can make your own luck. What’s really important is to get out from behind the computer, always go or you’ll never know.  Go to a game, go to a training session, go to a press conference, go to a sponsorship launch, it doesn’t matter.  Go.’