Manuela Spinelli: ‘Naomi Osaka is a young girl. I 100% side with her’

Italian translator worked alongside Giovanni Trapattoni on many press conferences

Manuela Spinelli shares a laugh with Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni during a press conference in Malahide in 2011. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Manuela Spinelli shares a laugh with Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni during a press conference in Malahide in 2011. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

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The sacred Mass of journalism – press conferences – is under attack. Naomi Osaka is attempting, be it consciously or not, to burn down this archaic structure.

The public might be more inclined to agree with her if they heard some of the guff uttered by unprepared and in some cases grossly unprofessional reporters chirping the dawn chorus.

“The question that needs to be asked is about the quality of the questions that are being asked,” says Manuela Spinelli, an Italian living in Dublin for over 20 years, who worked as translator to Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli when the duo coached the Republic of Ireland from 2008 to 2013.

“If it is relevant to the sport, the journalist is perfectly entitled to put the pressure on, but if it is about her personal life then what right have you to ask such questions?”

Long ago, the established athlete and coach embraced a filibustering strategy in what has become a ridiculous dance that barely serves anyone anymore. Trapattoni entered his 70s as Ireland manager so nothing was going to phase the wily old Milanese.

“I think that was his prank, play stupid,” laughs Spinelli, who also translated for Pope Francis during the 2018 visit to Dublin. “But somebody like him never says something that they do not want to say in a press conference.

“That is the essence of what is happening now. You are only going to get something that is unprepared or that the person does not want to say if the interviewer is irritating.”

The reporter’s life blood is access and, in turn, sporting bodies need to sell tickets, or the athlete is promoting whatever brand inflates their bank account, so the press conference survives as this uneasy peace accord.

Translator Manuela Spinelli and manager Giovanni Trapattoni at an Ireland press conference in Astana in 2012. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Translator Manuela Spinelli and manager Giovanni Trapattoni at an Ireland press conference in Astana in 2012. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

That is until Osaka called out the French Open’s deep rooted interactions with journalists to essentially force traditional and social media into a temporary bout of open warfare.

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“Trap’s first press conference in the RDS was utterly terrifying,” says Spinelli. “I was usually at the back of the room. I had not done any media-facing work before I started with him, other than a few rugby press conferences.

“It was terrifying because I didn’t expect so many people to be there. I used to only wear glasses when I was reading but I thought ‘At least I’ll have something to hide behind’. But with Trap’s charisma he would always make it an interesting experience.”

It never felt less than a grand performance directed by Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino.

“The one that totally rattled me and for pure entertainment value was the ‘chicken and the egg’ press conference in Belgium. As an interpreter when you do not know where Trap is going the only way to come out of it is to translate literally.

“If I said what he really means, which was ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ he would turn around and say [in Trap’s voice] ‘I do not speak about cake, I speak about chicken’.

“My job was a constant case of cultural interpretation. There are hundreds of articles in Italian where journalists had no idea where he was going.

“I just think he likes to take the piss. That’s my opinion! I loved working with him and Marco.”

Osaka controls the narrative now as opposed to the silent Gilles Moretton. The French tennis federation president, in a moment of unforgettable irony, refused to take questions after delivering a statement that goes against the very principles of mental health by wishing the world number two the “quickest possible recovery”.

The 23-year-old might still be the face of the Olympic Games in Tokyo but does all that talent, wealth and status mean she should be answering constant questions about the wave of Covid slashing through her country and how it impacts a billion euro event?

“Press conferences, at times, feel like a pointless exercise,” Spinelli continues. “Contractually people can only say certain things.

“But this still seems extremely delicate. Naomi Osaka is a young girl. I 100 per cent side with her.”

Nor should anyone’s mental health be expected to remain intact when repeatedly peppered with the same inquiries by “middle aged men” as Jonathan Liew observed in the Guardian, during the “lowest common denominator transaction: a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible. Gossip: good. Anger: good. Feuds: good. Tears: good. Personal tragedy: good.”

Press conferences remain an essential tool for holding people in authority to account but the format has been passed its sell by date ever since the spin doctors started systematically coaching the individual to say next to nothing.

“This is a massive conversation,” Spinelli adds. “Some of the questions should not be asked as they are not relevant to a person playing sport. Like, if the person is good looking, why does that give the journalist the right to ask her about it?

“That does affect you mentally. I remember being paranoid about wearing anything even slightly . . . I have seen how intimidating it can be.”

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