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Can we have our punditry balls back please?

TV commentary on the World Cup has been disappointingly cosy and conformist.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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In one sense, World Cup 2006 has been a slightly disappointing affair. I’m not talking about what’s been happening behind the ball, but rather what’s been happening behind the microphone, in the world of TV punditry.

Normally, TV football pundits can be a reliable source of ill-advised quips, hole-digging gaffs and just the plain daft. But during this World Cup, we haven’t seen much of the Alan Partridge-style ‘World Cup Countdown’, as immortalised on The Day Today. Instead it’s all been rather jarringly slick and sanitised.

On ITV Gabby Logan does her efficient Head Girl routine (though strangely sans Kohl war paint), while Ally McCoist and Andy Townsend mug the camera with their sub-Ant’n’Dec impression. And what’s with ITV’s signature graphics and theme tune? It’s one thing hoisting up a blurry montage of anonymous-looking football action – it’s another thing to furnish it with a yelping, indie-rock reading of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. Heck, it even makes the Embrace single sound good.

Over on the BBC, matey Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen rehearse their ‘consummate professional’ line before lining up a footballer as a fresh pundit. This year it’s former Chelsea player Marcel Desailly, who has been put forward as an expert on African football. As a former French national player, and with much of his playing career in Europe, it’s little wonder Desailly appears ill-at-ease. Then again, sitting next to Martin O’Neill – the barking Jack Russell of football punditry – is enough to make anyone feel nervous.

This year the BBC has done its bit for social inclusion, too. They’ve erected huge outdoor screens around the country, much to the annoyance of jumpy police authorities. So during the England v Paraguay game, we were treated to the rather pointless sight of watching England supporters celebrating that solitary (own) goal. The England/Paraguay game was perhaps most notable for the Mexican referee who, by modelling his look on Dracula, surpassed even Peter Crouch for physical hilarity.

Then there was England’s first half performance against Trinidad and Tobago. On ITV, Terry Venables’ bright pink shirt perfectly captured the mood of England fans in a way that the words of, say, John Motson couldn’t. Or should that be the statistics of John Motson? Once again, the BBC’s flagship commentator always seems to compensate for a lack of passion and insight with 90 minutes of aggravating facts and figures. Reminding us of what happened to Sweden in 1962 would only be relevant if it was the same bloody team.

It seems the only team where such mechanistic punditry doesn’t cut it is with reigning World Cup champions, Brazil. TV pundits can barely contain their excitement for the south Americans, in the same way cameramen can’t contain theirs for attractive Brazilian women dancing in the stadium (though this year, the fat moustachioed Brazilian man with a big drum was strangely absent). In the BBC studio, though, there was at least as much speculation about Ronaldo’s expanding waistline as there was about the lack of balls going over the goal line. It seems the influence of Jamie Oliver and the diet police really is everywhere.

Nevertheless, while football commentators are now well-versed in political correctness (witness Motson’s solemn sermon on Nazi Germany), some old habits die hard. The journalist Ed Barrett once noted how, whenever African nations play in the World Cup, commentators paint them as ‘happy-go-lucky’ with ‘natural talent’ but who are often ‘naive in defence’, etc. Such stock phrases have rolled off many a commentator’s tongue yet again. ‘Win or lose, they’re here to party’, said one pundit after Trinidad and Tobago lost to England. Incredibly, even though Ghana won a commanding victory over the Czech Republic, the commentary was still of the ‘they’re just happy to be here’ variety; and, as ever, we were told that the team ‘lacked discipline’.

Speaking of discipline, at the pre-pre-watershed time of 1.45pm, Lineker enquired whether Ian Wright was ‘into S&M’, meaning Serbia and Montenegro. Quite often Lineker’s puns come straight from the Little and Large school (as in little on laughs, large on groans), and, again, this was about as passable as the Ukraine’s midfield. In a strange way, though, the non-affected normality of Lineker, Hansen, Venables et al seems far more appealing than the freaks, weirdoes and exhibitionists over on Channel 4’s Big Brother. Indeed, at a time when society encourages the teenage Goth mindset, and when tabloids worship Pete Doherty, the ironed-shirt-and-slacks world of football coverage appears far more inviting.

Even so, that’s no excuse for coverage that’s just a bit too cosy and conformist. Where are the off-pitch shots of managers swearing their gonads off? Where are the Freudian slips? The excitably daft predictions that a match ‘will probably go either way’? And why haven’t there been more cryptic interviews with Garth Crooks? It’s this mix of the daft and the derisory that is oddly absent this year. It seems the quicker World Cup coverage forgets itself and scores some own goals, the quicker it will qualify as compelling TV.

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Topics Politics

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