In retrospect, it was a bad idea. The full scope of how bad didn’t sink in until I began receiving death threats.
Back in 2010, I covered a World Cup elimination game between South Korea and Uruguay. Uruguay won. I wrote a fairly pedestrian game summary.
One section contained what I’d intended as a light-hearted reference to the Uruguayan rugby team that crash-landed in the Andes and cannibalism.
Amongst the many things I would go back and tell my past self if I had access to a time machine: ‘There is no such thing as a light-hearted reference to cannibalism.’ The job of sports reporting entails a fair bit of abuse. One of our morning rituals is emptying out the in-box of a wide swath of ‘You are an idiot and how do you have a job?’ messages.
That animus ratchets up enormously during a World Cup. There’s national pride to consider.
Twitter was not really a thing four years ago. So when I got a dozen emails the next day berating me in English, Spanish and Spanglish, that was pretty typical. Shock and outrage mostly. I skimmed past.
Over the next 24 hours, maybe a dozen more. They were getting angrier and fewer of them were in English. By the third day, maybe fifty. On the fourth, more than a hundred. Just about every day, the number doubled.
The tone was now a little worrying. Like, let’s-just-check-into-the-idea-of-buying-a-pitbull sort of worrying.
One I remember particularly: “I will find you, crack open your head and eat your brains.” Which I thought rather proved my point, but probably best not to mention it.
One correspondent kindly offered to show my wife what a real man can do.
“Is he going to come over and clean the eavestroughs?” she asked hopefully.
This was now, officially, a thing. Uruguay hated me. Not Uruguayans. Uruguay.
I got a call from the office. The Uruguayan ambassador to Canada was on to the paper, seeking an apology. He’d written a tightly spaced two-page letter.
“We’d print it,” one of my managers later told me. “But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Here’s another rule of sportswriting: you correct your errors, but you do not apologize. We’re like the army that way. Once you start backing up, it’s only a matter of time before you’re turning and running.
So it continued, long past the end of the tournament.
Eventually, someone started an online petition demanding that I be fired.
I was on holiday in New York by this point, watching the tide of rage roll in. Every few minutes, I’d reload the page on my phone. A hundred more signatures. A hundred more. A hundred more. Three thousand people signed it on the first day.
I will admit this much – I was enjoying myself. It is oddly invigorating to be so deeply loathed that people are carving time out of their days to carve you.
I got back to the office. Someone in Uruguay had extended an invitation to the entire masthead of the paper to come down to Montevideo and be educated by the survivors of Flight 571. They offered to pay for the trip. Now this was about real people, and so it seemed less hilarious. I should’ve gone. I still kick myself on that one.
Still, the emails kept piling up. A month after the fact, I got a note from an Uruguayan journalist. Would I do an interview? We spoke first on the phone.
“This can’t really be that big a deal.”
“Oh, it is,” he said. “Many people are very upset. The president mentioned you in a speech.”
“The president. But I wouldn’t worry.”
Which is exactly the sort of thing that makes you worry.
I agreed to the interview if I could respond with written answers. He seemed excited. A little too excited. He promised to translate each answer in full, which he didn’t do. ‘Hoisted with his own petard’ pops to mind. I toiled over this thing. I thought I’d turned things around nicely, presenting myself as a veiled booster of the Uruguayan people.
It was a pretty typical main page of a news website. One main headline, a dozen or so subsidiary ones. When I checked back in an hour later, they’d blown everything away and were now presenting only one screaming story – mine . It was accompanied by a gigantically enlarged mugshot that made me look like a lunatic.
The Google translation of the banner top: “Canadian Pigeon Speaks.”
That didn’t sound good. I’ve had varying explanations on what it means exactly, but have been told it approximates to something like ‘rat’.
It did stem the tide of emails. Every once in a while, I’ll get a friendly reminder that I’m a racist scumbag out to undermine a country I couldn’t find on a map. Which is half-true.
A few months ago, I was at a party and was introduced to a woman. She stopped dead.
“You,” she said, like the Lord of the Flies had just rolled up with a martini and a smile.
She was, obviously, Uruguayan.
“If my father was here, he’d punch you in the face.”
Yeah, yeah, lady. Tell him to get in line.