On The Amazingly Anodyne World Cup Television Coverage In Britain

I’m not old enough to remember World Cup television punditry in England being good; I was born at the arse-end of the 1970s, the decade the concept of men (and it’s almost always men, of course) sitting around in a television studio talking before, in the middle of and after games was born in Britain. Back then, I’m told, the likes of Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison were must-watch television with their forthright opinions.

Nowadays, it’s as anodyne as anodyne can be. As “A History of Punditry” puts it:

In truth, punditry has eaten itself. What began as a frank discussion designed to explain and enliven has now become something so saturated and over-analysed that it tells the viewer nothing. The stultification of punditry is in part due to the intense media focus on British football in general which turns the kindest of criticism into all-out war but it’s also because pundits are aspirant coaches, scouts, managers etc themselves and keen not to burn any bridges with potential future employees.

In the 1970s, however, Brian Clough was part of a golden age of punditry that didn’t concern itself with tact. It began with the 1970 World Cup and that unlikely revolutionary Jimmy Hill. Asked to revitalise the ITV coverage for the tournament and steal the BBC’s thunder Hill crafted a ‘panel’ of men he hoped would be “conceited enough to think that their opinion was the right one”. For one month, the flamboyant Man City coach Malcolm Allison, the footballing activist and Wolves’ skipper Derek Dougan, Manchester United’s midfield motormouth Paddy Crerand and Arsenal stalwart Bob McNab holed up in London hotel commuting to the studio each day. Allison, bouffant and cigar-smoking, was in his element denouncing the ‘peasant’ teams of continental Europe and the scurrilous ways of the ‘Latins’. Derek Dougan, as eloquent a pundit as he was PFA chairman, represented the players’ voices in a way never achieved before or since and Crerand added the barstool belligerence you can still enjoy on MUTV.

Living in the United States myself now, I haven’t been able to see how British television is covering the 2010 World Cup — though Twitter folks I follow over there have been pretty scathing.

The problem appears not just to be how dull the pundits are on the BBC and ITV, but how stubbornly resistant they are to knowing anything about any of the teams aside from England. In The Scotsman today, columnist Tom English absolutely demolishes the level of “insight” the likes of former England captain Alan Shearer has been offering to viewers on the tournament on the BBC:

Before the Algeria versus Slovenia game in Group C on Sunday, Shearer seemed to be speaking for the entire BBC panel when he said, “Our knowledge of these two teams is limited.” Limited! What the former England striker was saying was that he hadn’t done his homework, that he hadn’t spoken to any of his vast array of contacts in the game, hadn’t tapped into the BBC’s huge research machinery, hadn’t even bothered, seemingly, to peruse the internet for some background on Algeria and Slovenia or even flick through a newspaper or a magazine. Shearer was content to sit in front of the cameras and tell the viewers that, really, he didn’t know much. Hardly a revelation to those of us who have groaned our way through his anodyne commentaries in the past, but embarrassing all the same. [ . . ]

And here’s another one. The Beeb got carpeted by some viewers for their treatment of that Algeria game. So what happened before the kick-off in yesterday’s lunch-time match between New Zealand and Slovakia? In a six-and-a-half minute introduction just one player out of the 22 on show was given a name-check, and here is how it happened.

Lee Dixon: “Slovakia have got some decent players, Hamsik, the pick of them. Young player, plays on the left side.”

Gary Lineker: “He’s at Napoli.”

Lee Dixon: “That’s right.”

Alan Hansen (chuckling): “Somebody gave you him, by the way.”

What Hansen meant, I think, was that his colleagues must have been fed the Hamsik reference by another party, that they couldn’t have come up with his name all by themselves. It’s not like Dixon or Lineker produced a dossier of facts about Hamsik, a file of information on who he is and where he has been. All they did was mention his name and the fact that he was rather good. That was it. Hansen seemed to think this was worthy of a gently-mocking put-down, as if the other two were some kind of class swots. As such, he was almost revelling in his own ignorance.

English doesn’t spare ITV, either, with their highly paid new anchor Adrian Chiles embarassing himself before the U.S.-England game:

His introduction to England’s game against the Americans was mortifying. Wielding a baseball bat and sending a message to America, he said, “Just stick to your sports, why don’t you?” Chiles was also seen patting a burger, adding: “We really love Americans, just wouldn’t eat a whole one.” He made himself look like a clown.

Summing up, English concludes: “The level of punditry is cringe-making. It’s lowest common denominator stuff. Patronising and insulting, much of it.”

I’m not surprised to learn this, but it is amazing the coverage of the World Cup continues to get worse on British television. ESPN should think carefully before aiming to emulate everything about the British way of broadcasting the games.

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