British Television & The World Cup, Part One – A Difficult Birth
In eleven days time, the 2014 World Cup Finals begins in Brazil, and the eyes of the world will be watching. An estimated armchair audience of at least a gazillion viewers – or at least that’s how the size of the viewing audience will be spun by those with a vested interest in making sure that advertisers believe that improbably high numbers of people have been watching matches – will tune in, and it’s difficult for those under a pensionable age to remember a time during when this wasn’t the case. However, the Home Nations’ refusal to play in the first three tournaments coupled with the technological constraints of the earlier days of the medium meant that the first four World Cup finals were not shown at all in the United Kingdom.
A dispute over payments to amateur players in 1928 – ‘broken time payments,’ by which loss of pay and expenses would be met – for those who played but didn’t make a living from the game – had led to the withdrawal of the home nations, and this meant that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all sat out the first three World Cup tournaments, even though FIFA did attempt to coax the FA, the SFA, the FAW and the IFA back into the fold. It took until 1946 for a little common sense to win through, with the 1950 Home International tournament being used by FIFA as a qualifying group for that summer’s World Cup finals. Two qualifying places were available to the four competing nations, and with one match left to play, both England and Scotland had booked their places in Brazil as the top two teams in the group. Inexplicably, however, in the build-up to the final match between Scotland and England at Hampden Park, the secretary of the SFA George Graham declared that Scotland would only accept FIFA’s invitation if they went as the winners of the tournament. England beat Scotland by a goal to nil, and Scotland chose to stay at home.
It may well have turned out to be a decision that the SFA thanked their lucky stars over when they heard of England’s wretched display in the tournament, but at least there was a crumb of comfort for the shell-shocked Football Association in England in that no-one at home had witnessed England’s humiliation because the tournament wasn’t shown on the television. Four years later, however, there could be no such excuses for the FA. The European Broadcasting Union had been established in 1950 as a union of national broadcasters in Europe, and Eurovision, which was set up to promote co-operation between these broacasters, was launched in Geneva in June of 1954, shortly before the World Cup finals commenced, perhaps not coincidentally, in Switzerland. The BBC, who at that time retained their televisual monopoly in Britain, were the broadcasters for the tournament in the United Kingdom.
By the time of the next tournament in Sweden, however, the broadcasting landscape in Britain had been changed forever. The launch of commercial television in 1955 – a process that would be slowly rolled out across the country over the following seven years – gave the BBC competition for the first time, and both ITV and the BBC would cover the 1958 World Cup finals, which were held in Sweden. In comparison with the modern day, however, both organisations were limited in terms of what they could show. Live matches were broadcast across whole of Europe through Eurovision, but only one match could be relayed live at any given time, and simultaneous kick-off times meant that both British broadcasters had to show the same games at the same time, whilst neither had any influence over which fixtures would be selected.
This meant that Scotland, who by this time had deigned to enter the competition, didn’t appear at all live on British television at the 1950 World Cup finals. Considering Scotland’s poor showing, it could be argued that Wales were even more hard done by. Qualifiers for the first – and to date only – time, their group match against Sweden was shown live, as all matches involving the host nation were, but neither their group play-off match win Hungary (a highly impressive result, even though the Hungary team of 1958 was but a shadow of that which had reached the final of the competition four years earlier) and their quarter-final match against Brazil were selected to be shown live either. English supporters, meanwhile, fared marginally better, even if the England team did record what has turned out so far to be one of its worst ever performance in a World Cup finals. Their group match against Brazil was shown live across Europe, as was their play-off defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union. Other than the Eurovision selection, only brief highlights and reports of matches were shown.
Four years later, the World Cup finals returned to South America for the first time in twelve years, with Chile being selected to host the tournament, and this created something of a headache for European broadcasters. The technology to broadcast across the world on the television was achingly close, and the first Telstar satellite, which was capable of broadcasting live footage across the Atlantic ocean, became operative on the tenth of July 1962, but this was just too late for that summer’s World Cup finals, which had ended three and a half weeks earlier. What this meant in Britain was that there was no live television coverage of the 1962 World Cup finals, and supporters who wanted to find out what was happening as it happened were left with the radio as their only resort. Film footage of matches was shipped back and shown on a two day delay, either as delayed full coverage or as highlights, and because of this ITV decided not to get involved with the tournament at all. The BBC only showed England’s matches – which culminated in a now traditional quarter-final defeat, this time at the hands of Brazil – and the final of the tournament as live.
As it turned out, the 1962 World Cup finals would be the last to have an air of mystery about them. Within four years, the introduction of regular televised football – first on ITV at the beginning of the 1960s and shortly after on the BBC following the launch of “Match Of The Day” in 1964 – and technological advances within the field of broadcasting had gone some way towards changing the face of the game in this country forever. Television broadcasting of the World Cup finals would go on to another of its great leap forwards, ironically enough, in one of the countries that had been perhaps the most stubbornly resistant to change in a football sense… England.
In the second part of this series, we’ll be looking at a transitional phase during which the broadcasting of the game went from being a logistical nightmare to being something like the entire tournament’s raison d’etre. Coming up tomorrow night, the story of television in Britain and the World Cup finals of 1966 and 1970.
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