Pirates, punch-ups and interpreting for Tevez

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I’d spent a pleasant day interviewing people in Durban, checking the progress of the new World Cup stadium and watching Manchester United train ahead of a friendly match against the Orlando Pirates.

For training, I had media accreditation and was directed into the stadium and down the tunnel onto the pitch with the players. There were about 400 fans in the stand behind.

I felt out of place as the only other people there were Sir Alex Ferguson, chief executive David Gill and a few members of the club staff, more so when some shouted from the stand to ask when the next United We Stand is coming out. The other journalists were soon on the pitch, however, the ones for the dailies getting their 15 minutes with Ferguson in the dug out.

Rooney goes it alone against Orlando Pirates 

Paddy Crerand was there too, always a brilliant figure with United fans. He’ll talk to absolutely anyone and their pet about Cristiano Ronaldo’s intentions. He owed me some money and handed over a cheque with his 1950s handwriting on. I told him an hour later than it had bounced and he believed me.

Then he collared me to talk about Real Madrid. He doesn’t like them. He did, but he doesn’t now. Given that arranging a fight between Paddy and President Calderon is out of the question, his anger will have to fester.

After training, I drove away from Durban’s rougher-than-Dewsbury city centre to my hotel in the wealthy northern beach suburbs where you get an awful lot of hotel for £46 a night. That’s when the phone went, with a representative from a large American sportswear company on the line.

“We need a Spanish speaker now to interview Tevez,” he said. “Can you do it?” I could and drove to the heavily guarded players’ hotel to be ushered to a room, where various stylists, photographers, assistants, advisers and advisers’ assistants were fussing around the diminutive Argentinian. He couldn’t communicate with any of them.

“Can you tell him that the glycerine we are spraying on his face will not do him any damage?” asked a stylist as soon as I’d arrived. “But that he must close his eyes.”

“Er, hello Carlos. Nice to see you. This stuff they are spraying on your face will not cause you any damage.”

"Ahhh... my eyes, MY EYES!"  

Tevez was fine. He’ll never be invited to the United Nations to deliver a speech on macro economic policy of the emerging economies, but he’s a top-level player, a grafter’s grafter who never stops running.

He was brilliant against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final at Old Trafford, better still against Chelsea in Moscow. Lionel Messi told me that he was a little bull. That’ll make the two of them.

I told Tevez about the Messi quote and he laughed. Told him too that an Argentinian girl I know used to be a volunteer helping homeless people in his childhood neighbourhood of Fort Apache, Buenos Aires, which is no Belgravia. And wouldn’t want to be.

Interviews cannot be one way. You have to give the player something back. I saw a journalist shrivel in front of Messi in February because he had a list of 10 anodyne questions. Messi wasn’t interested. Human conversations are not one way, so while the focus remains firmly on the subject, they should be engaged. Do that and your 25 minutes with Cantona can turn into over an hour.

Then I did the interview.

Crerand vs Calderon? No contest 

Afterwards, I had a drink in the hotel where Sir Alex Ferguson had spent much of the day sunbathing. The United staff were having a quiz on the club’s history.

The following day, I met some of the 50 travelling United fans in a bar outside Durban’s Absa stadium. 14 of them are travelling on to Nigeria to see the team play Portsmouth on Monday. They deserve free match tickets and I’ll make sure that the powers that be at United know about their support.

While they go north, I’m now in Port Elizabeth to see the Kaizer Chiefs against the Orlando Pirates. It’s supposed to be one of the best derbies in Africa, with the winner playing United in Pretoria on Saturday.