Interview with Sam Diss of MUNDIAL Magazine
A Brief Chat With Sam Diss Of London’s MUNDIAL Magazine
Talking about what goes into making a successful magazine, writing good words, and everything else that comes to mind.
Interview conducted by James Royce.
Tricky thing to enter, the print industry. Waltz in thinking it’s all about putting the pen to paper and having a laugh over the odd Tuesday editorial meeting and then, boom: you fold after four issues. That sucks, though, really, because print is the best. The smell of print? Hackneyed adage, sure. But holds a lot of truth to it. Plus you can’t decorate your coffee table with just a load of Kindles.
MUNDIAL magazine is one of the one’s that you’d say have, well, “cracked the code.” Yes, it’s a soccer magazine. Or rather, football, that is. Especially considering MUNDIAL is based out of London. And before you think, “Oh, well so it’s just a sports rag?” Just know: Sales are up. They have put a consistent quarterly magazine to print for several years now. Their studio is whipping out ace projects for brands you certainly have heard of before and probably like quite a lot. That’s not an easy thing to do and there’s a reason why it’s one of the most popular football (and really, just general interest) magazines around. The writing is good, the photos are good, and the angles they run with are all very good. It’s brilliant and one of my favorite publications around. And I don’t even like football that much.
The commissioning editor of MUNDIAL, Sam Diss, was kind enough to have chat recently. There was really no plan in place other than I set up the WhatsApp call to talk about how fond I am of his writing. That, and I felt it’d be fun to talk about what goes into putting together a great magazine.
Here’s what he had to say:
JR: Hey Sam! Let me just get this WhatsApp audio setup here. All good? How’ve you been?
SD: It’s been a mad one the past three weeks! Been all over the North of England for the magazine.
JR: You’ve been writing for MUNDIAL since, well, day one, right?
SD: Yeah, I came in at what was technically issue one. But it’s a weird one. I only got into writing sort of by accident. I have no real writing background. I was just on Twitter loads and decided I should stretch my legs a bit more. Write a couple of blogs. And I just got lucky that the platform that I was using, which was a website called Sabotage Times, was where I met Dan and Owen who are the editor in chief and features editor of MUNDIAL now. I think it helped all of us. Because none of us have formal writing backgrounds or qualifications.
That sort of has worked because none of us were getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty and people telling us, “This is how you write. This is how you talk. This is how you think.”
At the start it was a bit of a mess. But I think we’ve gradually found this middle ground of writing a story that makes sense and how to write an article that can be read by everyone. But it also doesn’t feel like writing. The second writing feels like writing it’s bad writing.
JR: How’s everything going on post Issue 17 release?
SD: Yeah, not bad! It’s a weird one when things go to print. We only have about a week and a half’s grace and then we start the next one and that’s, well, literally tomorrow. That’s usual, though. We start the next issue the day before the launch party of every fresh one.
JR: Oh so you just rip straight into the next issue after you finish the previous one?
SD: Oh, yeah. As commissioning editor I reckon we have about 100 pitches per issue. We only really have, like, five or six features so I constantly have a running tally of different features that are always going. Stuff that I wanted to write. Stuff that people just mentioned. Stuff that’s semi time sensitive. We try to keep everything quite timeless, though. Especially as it is quarterly.
There are so many magazines that just get done in by trying to be timely. You can maybe get away with that if you’re a monthly. But if we’re like, “So and so is having a great couple of weeks,” and, yeah, they were playing on form, the next week that can all just fucking disappear. It’s best to just avoid that.
The way that we write things is a bit more endearing. Focusing on the actual story-telling aspect and not so much on the, “This is someone that’s good at football right now” scheme. We want more stories that are going to be interesting forever. Or hopefully (quick laugh).
JR: Yeah, I actually have a copy of MUNDIAL Issue 2, which is right in front of me because I was reading it before this to get ready for this interview. And have to say, it was as good of an experience reading it now as it was the first time.
SD: Exactly! One of the nicest things anyone said about us was that you can pick up the magazine and not know who is top of the Premier League, who the highest goal scorer is, and all that sort of stuff and it doesn’t make any difference.
Which is great because it helps us do really well abroad while still doing well with both sides of the British audience. Which is incredibly split between this sort of hyper-reality of petroleum-inflated teams like Man City and Chelsea and Man United. Which the football is brilliant, yes, but what is behind it is a bit icky and you try to stay out of it. Then there’s the other side which is really focused on what we all fell in love with in the first place. The culture behind it and the community. We want to write things for people who are looking for more than, like, “Yeah, the Champions League is sick.” But you have to balance both those things at once. I’d like to say that we do it better than some people. We have more wins than losses. I’m sure if you did the tally chart we’d be coming up just about right on top, though.
JR: Yeah and I definitely think you’ve been doing a great job in that category, for sure. I mean, my friends and I are borderline idiotic when it comes to soccer. I mean football. But yeah, we don’t know who is doing what and where and why and how of everything most of the time. But we can pick up a MUNDIAL and enjoy the writing the notice the killer photography and laugh over the football fashion reviews and just love all of it. Plus now we know a bit more about football than we did before. It’s a nice little win-win.
SD: Yeah, the best sportswriting in general is the stuff that transcends sport itself in its own way. And that’s what we’re trying to replicate. That’s what we’ve always been after. I mean, some of my favorite long-form journalism is about fucking the most random things. I remember reading this amazing piece from Brian Phillips about the Iditarod Alaskan husky race. And I don’t give a shit about huskies and I don’t give a shit about all that in Alaska. But when the writing is good, it transcends that. We always try to do that with football.
Fifty percent of it is purely football focused and 50 percent of it is just good writing. It’s almost, like, a football magazine for people who don’t read football magazines. Or don’t know football magazines. Also the crowd that knows why they like the sport without actually watching a ton of football. Our team here, we’ve all gone and watched football. Or we’ve all played football since we were children. And I think that still really comes across.
But also, I think one of the main problems with a lot of football writing today is sometimes the match can get in the way. And football is about so much more. Football is more than just the 90 minutes and the transfer window and all that sort of shit. It’s a microcosm for its community and its history and the team and its history. It’s a sum of everything that has come before it. That context is what makes it so interesting outside of the match itself. Football says so much about the people in those small towns hosting clubs.
We also just want to celebrate those feats of genius and physiological impossibility that transcend human realm. Like, when I play five-a-side I ache for four days after. So when I see Leo Messi completely tearing apart professional footballers, to me, that’s something so much more special because of the context that it’s in. I’ve played football my whole life and everyone who writes for us has played football their whole life. We’re obsessed with reading about it, playing it, watching it. You just get such a different feeling for what it is in context.
That’s why I think it’s so interesting the way America does things. There’s this dramatic Hollywood-isation of sports. Like what the NBA has with all the drama and the narratives around a player or a team or the trade deals. Which you get in football obviously over this way. But when it’s American sports it’s always a huge, huge, huge deal. People are making documentaries and all that sort of shit. That’s something that Americans can and always do, which is boosting self-mythology.
"The way that we write things is a bit more endearing. Focusing on the actual story-telling aspect and not so much on the, “This is someone that’s good at football right now” scheme. We want more stories that are going to be interesting forever. "
JR: (Asking a question laugh) Yeah, we certainly know how to run a decent PR campaign for anything and anyone here in The States.
SD: (Answering a question laugh), Exactly! You buy into the mythology of it all and run with it. I think one of the things that separates MUNDIAL from other people is that we’ve never been afraid to buy into the mythology and enjoy it. That’s the fun stuff, you know what I mean?
It’s all well and good saying, “Oh, well LeBron is overrated.” But you know what else is really fun? Reveling in fucking how excellent LeBron is at basketball! I think that people don’t do that enough. If you look at Pelé, widely regarded as the best footballer of all time, people feel this need to break him down as an idol. Same with Diego Maradona, who is also considered “the other one” in terms of the best footballers of all time. You buy into that mythology briefly but then go against it for some reason. Especially on the internet and writers online and certainly on Twitter. We’re all so quick to think, “That thing you like? That thing you love? It’s shit. That thing that you believe is bad.” Without even giving reason sometimes. The fact that you think it is reason enough.
What I think is important is remembering why you fell in love with football in the first place. You fell in love to be contrarian. You fell in love because you saw David Beckham just doing things you’ve never seen before. You saw Messi doing things you’ve never seen before. And I think that’s the sort of thing you need to buy into. I think that people are so scared of sincerity and enjoying things. People forget that sport is entertainment. Sport is fun. And the fun-ness is something that we never try to forget here. I mean sometimes it’s quite easy to forget it, especially if it becomes your full-time job and you’re doing it all day every day and it feels like work.
But as soon as you play football or watch football or see something insane in the Champions League or whatever other shit pops up in your Twitter feed it’s good to buy into that excitement. That’s not a bad thing.
Football, for me, because it is this global game and it has this endless amount or narratives, has something that lends itself to these narratives and mythology. And it lends itself so well.
JR: And it shows in the writing for sure. Some of my favorite articles to read are the “Player Name: How Good Was He?” Even if it’s the one page or ten page or who cares, it’s the best. Hyping up the mythology works. Writing about how good this one guy plays at this arena at this time of year only has such a long shelf-life. You don’t see a ton of statistics being dumped in MUNDIAL, which is great.
SD: Because that’s not important! Everyone is obsessed with statistics for some reason. And I could tell you the goal scorers of every single game that happened and how many shots they had and all that stuff. Anything that’s available to me like that, I’ll retain. As would you.
But that’s not why you fall in love with football. You fall in love with football and know every single part of it, yes. But you don’t want to try to dissect it. I think that’s the thing that American sports have unfortunately become obsessed with recently is this dissection of brilliance. You try to work something out scientifically and make these “greatness equations” or ask: “What equals greatness?”
Whereas where what we are trying to do and what I hope we do successfully is working out how that makes you feel. Rather than pinning it down and cut it open and, like, working out the horrible nitty-gritty numbers of it. Because numbers lie. Everyone knows numbers lie.
JR: Yeah! You see it all the time today. Everyone can twist a number to say whatever they want.
SD: Exactly! Yeah, you scored six goals in four games. That makes them sound like one of the best players in the world. But they might not score for another fifteen games so what’s the point. You can crop numbers to whatever you want. But the actual feel is so much more important and is something that will last a lot longer. Players go on good goal scoring runs all the time. But if someone makes a play you remember forever then that’s the thing we want to focus on.
With our writers and our editorial stuff, we all started by being gobshites in the pub. Just chatting about the stuff we love about football and just getting drunk and waxing lyrical. And some of it is mythology. Some of it is hyperbole. But, like, as long as you tell it in an interesting way and it has that sort of core kernel of truth, even if it’s something you misremembered, the fact that you remembered it in the first place in that sort of way tells its own truth.
For example, I wrote about Francesco Totti because he was my favorite player in the world when I was, like, nine. And, like, I completely misremembered loads of it. But the fact that I remembered it in a certain way told its own sort of story. Because it’s all about the context of what he looked like and how he was this fucking incredibly handsome and incredibly graceful footballer with long hair and a headband. Just the complete antitheses of everything I was seeing in the Premier League at the time. It was David Beckham showing up before David Beckham became David Beckham and that’s what Francesco Totti was. He was the handsome, incredible footballer before Beckham was Beckham. And it doesn’t matter that he only scored nine goals in one season. To me, he was fucking incredible and the main man for all of it.
I think focusing on the things that are important and memories and nostalgia is good. The way that people remember things is almost half of the story. That’s why we’re not afraid of the odd bit of fan fiction and fantasy. Some of the things that you are truly interested in because they speak to a certain part of your brain take you off into a flight of fancy. You can overlook that it’s a bit frivolous. At least I do, anyway. When I’m writing, the fact that someone can inspire something in me I think is something worth digging in to. At least rather than the fact that they scored nine goals in nine games or whatever.