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A chat with Tim Vickery – BBC Football’s go-to guy in South America

From his base in Rio de Janeiro, Tim Vickery has been covering South American football for nearly twenty years. Nicknamed ‘The Vickipedia’ for his extensive knowledge of the South American game and counting BBC Sport, Sports Illustrated and Sky Sports amongst his clients, it’s fair to say this is a chap who knows his football – and freelancing for that matter.

Tim, for those who aren’t familiar with the story, how on earth did you end up freelance football writing in Brazil?

By failing at everything else!

Initially, I tried to launch my own magazine. This soon went hopelessly bust but it was an experience that taught me plenty. The Brazil move came a little later and arose out of a curiosity about the country, after I’d made lots of Brazilian friends living and working in London.

I decided to come out to Rio and give freelance football writing a go in 1994 – I was 29 at the time and thought that if I didn’t try and grasp the experience of living abroad, it would never happen.

One of the things underpinning my decision was a feeling that football was in a process of globalisation and that there might be opportunities. It took a while, but the build up to the 1998 World Cup opened the necessary doors.

I’m not totally freelance by the way – I wouldn’t get a visa here if that was the case. I have a deal with the BBC, but I’m also free to work for others.

Freelancers face a lot of struggles here in the UK – what struggles do you face freelancing in South America?

Payment is an issue, as a visa restriction means that I can’t be paid for the work I do for local media. Elsewhere, being so far away from my paying clients makes it easier for them not to pay.

What are the perks that come with freelance football writing?

That there’s little chance of getting an answer to this question before 11 on a Monday morning because I’m probably having a nap. That element of control over hours and work is a huge perk.

What does your typical working day look like?

There’s no such thing – another advantage – and it really depends on the demands of the day. That said, if I have any say in the matter it’ll involve a leisurely start and plenty of time with coffee and a newspaper before getting down to work.

What advice would you give to people who want carve out a freelance career in football writing?

Most who contact me for advice seem to have very little idea of the situation facing freelance football writers. Problems are many, but perhaps the most pronounced are;

  • It’s hard to get work – remember, any money spent on you is a resource the people at the centre can’t spend on themselves.

  • Rates of pay are usually appalling – due to the above!

  • There’s a very real possibility of having to wait ages to be paid – or of not being paid at all.

With the crisis of the written word, none of this is going to get easier. If you really want to do it, it’s far better to have something different to offer – a speciality. Some seem to think they can make a living writing about Real Madrid from South London… why is anyone going to pay you to do that?

Which football writers have influenced you the most?

I always enjoyed Brian Glanville for his global concern, and Hugh McIlvanney for his capacity to put sport in a social context.

And finally, which footballer past or present do you think freelancers could learn the most from?

Johan Cruyff, for his capacity to think for himself and to create an identity. These skills are invaluable for the freelance football writer.

You can hear Tim weekly on the BBC’s World Football Phone-In, which runs from 2-4am on Radio 5 Live every Saturday morning. Or, if you don’t want to stay up that late download the podcast here. He also has a weekly column on the BBC Sport website.

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