The Sweeper: Has Television Killed Football?

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“Today the stadium is a gigantic TV studio. The game is played for television so you can watch it at home. And television rules.” So wrote Eduardo Galeano in Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

That has long been the view of the football purist. Such a thought was echoed yesterday by the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson, a purist if ever there was one, arguing that television’s focus on the moment is killing the game’s broader development, with elite players and teams increasingly falling to the demands of television for speed and flashy skill: “The focus on tricks is a trend only likely to be accentuated by programmes such as Wayne Rooney’s Street Striker, and the danger is that football produces a generation of posturing show ponies incapable of producing the incisive pass or making the right run.”

Wilson’s argument has an awful lot to it that needs unpacking, and seems a little confused in parts. Is it “harum-scarum running and clattering tackles . . .praised as representative of the seductive hurly-burly of the Premier League” that television demands?  Or is it “that players become focused on their showreels at the expense of the game itself, or that young players learn how to flick the ball over their heads rather than learning about the shape of the game”?  How exactly did they both develop out of the demands of the same medium?  Has this worked the same way the world over?

As Richard Whittall comments at a More Splendid Life, Wilson is onto something, it’s just not quite clear what; Whittall makes an alternate suggestion that “The panopticon of live global television has brought us McFootball” because “the frequency and availability of full-length match broadcasts from across the globe that has affected football tactics. You can easily see why; there are no surprises anymore, tactics have become homogenized, formations streamlined, because there isn’t any possibility of surprise when everyone can see everyone else, live on satellite.”

Either way, the impact of television on the development of soccer since the first attempt at a live outside broadcast was made in 1937 has been far greater than could be probably addressed in any piece as short as Wilson or Whittall’s, as it has weaved its way into every sinew of the game. Yet call me a romantic, but I think Galeano would concur: deep-down, even television cannot kill the ultimate unpredictability of football’s development. Upsets, beauty and tactical innovation are still broadcast to us and come in unexpected ways every year regardless of the box.

Let us return to Galeano’s introduction to Soccer in Sun and Shadow:

Play has become a spectacle, with few protaganists and many spectators, soccer for watching. . .The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the entire script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom

Worldwide News

  • For a breather from the daily grind of following televised sport, the Global Game has an (as ever) thoughtful piece in football in Peru covering a competition you won’t have heard about: “A six-team fulbito tournament in Lima in December concluded a nationwide competition involving more than 40,000 indigenous Andean women, who don colorful skirts(polleras) and play on weekends as respite from hard labors at home and in the fields.”
  • Back to England, and David Conn makes the obvious but telling observation on the financial divide in Manchester: “In simple terms, the lottery of English football clubs being companies up for sale on the open market has delivered a winning ticket to the Blues, not the Reds. Mansour has made an enormous financial investment in City, while the Glazers, since they bought United in their bitterly contested takeover, have given the club not one penny to spend. Quite the opposite.”
  • Outside of Conn, Portsmouth’s perilous plight has meant many more journalists covering the financial madness of the Premier League. Paul Kelso (who to be fair has covered this angle in the past) looks at the debt mountain and comes to the conclusion that — the many jibes against Platini aside — UEFA’s moves towards some financial restraints might just make some sense “to protect clubs from themselves.”

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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