Last week, we took you from the beginning of the 1966 World Cup finals through to 1978 through the lens of the television cameras that brought the world’s biggest football tournament into our living rooms. This week we move on to the 1980s and the beginning of the gradual expansion of the tournament. The 1980s were a decade during which technological improvements that those in the television industry may have hoped for were cut short by a tournament that twice might not even have taken place, and ended with a tournament that was resplendent with bells and whistles but was let down by the appalling quality of football taking place on the pitch.
Talk of expanding the World Cup had started in 1970, with Sir Stanley Rous (the then-president of FIFA) stating that the tournament would be “better balanced” by having twenty-four nations playing in it rather than sixteen. Rous retired in 1974, but the idea persisted. There were proposals to increase the 1978 tournament to twenty nations, but these were postponed and in 1982, the World Cup finals arrived in Spain with twenty-four nations and a completely new format. Rather than having quarter-finals, there would be a second group stage with the twelve qualifiers playing in four groups of three. Some complained that this was too big an expansion, and that there would be too many lop-sided games, but commercial considerations won over and the 1982 World Cup took place in Spain with twenty-four nations.
That the 1982 tournament would be held in Spain was no great surprise. The Spanish had stood aside as long ago as 1966 in a bid the host the 1974 tournament in exchange for West German support for their bid. In broadcasting terms, they had a brand new broadcasting infrastructure, with colour television having only been introduced to the country in 1978 (although the 1972 Olympic Games had been broadcast in colour in the country as a test run) and the seven hundred and fifty foot Torrespaña, a communication tower, having been built in Madrid especially for the finals, this was arguably the easiest tournament yet for British television companies to broadcast. Spain even shared the PAL 625-line colour system that was used in Britain, so pictures wouldn’t have to be tampered with to improve them. Sound quality was still an issue, however, with commentary feeds still being only of the quality of a telephone, and the in-game presentation remained basic.
The BBC’s coverage was presented by David Coleman and Jimmy Hill, with a commentary theme that has a very familiar ring to it: John Motson, Barry Davies, Alan Parry, Des Lynam, and Tony Gubba. Archie McPherson commentated on Scotland matches for viewers watching in Scotland. It was Gubba’s first world Cup for the BBC (he remains with the corporation to this day), and Lynam, whose commentary career with the BBC is often overlooked, would be back in the studio four years later as the main anchor.
For the second tournament in a row, the BBC utilised the (some might say dubious) talents of Andrew Lloyd-Webber for their title music. Four years after he anonymously produced “Argentine Melody”, the BBC used “Jellicle Ball”, an instrumental break from his recently produced West End musical, “Cats”, which was performed by the The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Harry Rabinowitz (who would go on to even greater success with his work on “The Talented Mr Ripley” and “The English Patient”). A poor quality of the shorter version used by the BBC is available here, with a longer version (which was, naturally, released as a single by the BBC during the tournament, reaching the prestigious number sixty-one spot in the charts) available here.
Quite why the BBC chose to use it as their theme is something of a mystery, but the downward spiralling end of it seemed to match England’s goal-scoring performance in the competition, which was memorably described by Sean Connery (or, rather, his script-writer Stan Hey, who wrote also the script for the 1980 comedy-drama series “Auf Wiederschen Pet”) in the official film of the tournament, “G’olé!” as being, “like a Canaveral countdown… 3-2-1… zero” as the paucity of their attacking talent became increasingly exposed. Still, at least England had qualified for the first time, and one thing that is noticeable about coverage of the tournament is the extent to which prospects of any English success were played down, a consqeuence not only of their previous two qualification attempts but also of their dismal showing at the 1980 European Championships.
Brian Moore, meanwhile, must have been wondering what he had done wrong. ITV stayed back in London again for the 1982 World Cup with Moore as the anchor, meaning that the voice of ITV football was yet again not the voice of the matches themselves. ITV’s lead commentator for the tournament, with Hugh Johns having gone into semi-retirement, was Granada TV’s Martin Tyler, along with Johns, John Helm, Gerald Sinstadt and Gerry Harrison. Meanwhile, Ian St John and Nick Owen reported live from Spain when reporting was required. Moore, however, was flown out to Mexico to commentate on the final at The Azteca Stadium between Argentina and West Germany.
ITV again decided to commission their own title music for the finals, with Jeff Wayne (who, on top of the “War Of The Worlds” musical, also wrote, amongst other things, the music for the Fry’s Turkish Delight and TV-AM’s distinctive title music for “Good Morning Britain”, as well as “Jubilation”, the then-title music for “The Big Match”) coming up with (and you can draw your own conclusions about what this says about British attitudes towards Spain in 1982) “Matador”, which was again released as a single, making number fifty-seven in the charts. The pan-pipes/acoustic guitar/fake brass section hasn’t, in truth, worn well, and the piece sounds as much as if it could have been the title music for a lifestyle piece such as “Wish You Were Here” as for a sports programme. Few in 1982 would have guessed how prescient that would be.
The 1986 World Cup tournament was thrown into crisis three years before a ball was kicked, when the Columbian president, Belisario Betancur, confirmed that due to the financial condition of the country, they would not be able host the tournament that they had been scheduled to host. Mexico were hastily installed as their replacement, but the tournament was thrown into jeopardy in September when, in an eerie repeat of what happened prior to the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile, a horrific earthquake, which killed between 5,000 and 20,000 people (the number is disputed), hit Mexico City. Although the damage was highly localised, there were calls for the tournament to be cancelled or to be moved elsewhere. Because the earthquake occurred in the centre of the biggest city in the country, the collateral damage couldn’t only be measured in collapsed buildings and fatalities. The infrastructure of Mexico was seriously damaged – seventy per cent of the whole country was left without telephones and television studios in Mexico City were also seriously damaged.
Despite this, however, the 1986 World Cup went ahead, and it went ahead live on the television. This in itself was widely regarded as a major achievement. The televising itself didn’t go without hitches, with commentary feeds occasionally dropping and some issues with the quality of picture feeds, but the tournament organisers were largely – and rightly – immune from criticism over this because of the obstacles that they had been forced to overcome just to get the tournament played in the first place. FIFA, however, weren’t exempt from criticism over the scheduling of the tournament. For the second time, they played matches kicking off at noon and four o’clock in the afternoon for the benefit of European television audiences, with the result that many opening round matches were not well-attended (14,000 watched the group match between Canada and Hungary, while the match between England and Poland was watched by just 23,000) and many of the matches slowed to little more than a walking pace.
Still, though, the domestic television coverage of the 1986 World Cup in Britain proved something – people that were doom-mongering about the death of football were wrong. An audience of twenty million watched the quarter-final between England and Argentina only just over a year after the Heysel Stadium tragedy and Bradford Fire had torn holes in the attendance figures for domestic matches, even if the chauvinistic treatment of this match (and its aftermath) in the press just four years after the crisis in the Falklands did turn some away from their national team. The BBC and ITV kept their coverage much the same as four years previously, but they did at least come up with two memorable pieces of title music. The BBC went for “Aztec Lightning”, which was, somewhat curiously, based upon “Mexico Medley” by Helmut Zacharias, their title music for the 1968 Olympic Games, which were, of course, held in Mexico City. This being 1986, however, “Aztec Lightning” sounds as if it may have been parsed through a computer called “The Paul-Hardcastle-O-Tron 2000”. ITV went back to Rod Argent (who, as previously mentioned on this site, had been involved with The Zombie, Argent and ITV’s 1978 effort, “Action Argentina”), who, under the name of Silsoe, recorded “Aztec Gold”, another piece of typically mid-eighties fluff that scraped along the bottom of the charts, although ITV, in what could be charitably described as early evidence of recycling, continued to use the music as the title music to their Saturday lunchtime chuckle-a-thon, “Saint & Greavsie”. As a brief break before we move on to 1990, here is the BBC’s 20 best goals of the 1986 World Cup:
Was the 1990 World Cup the jumping off point, from which football started to take itself a little too seriously? It certainly seemed so in Britain. The third twenty-four nation World Cup finals in Italy was the grandest yet, with huge new stadia built (way over-budget and, for a while, it seemed late, although everything was just about ready in time). England hopes were again not particularly high, with the 1988 European Championships seeing them crash out with three losses from three matches. The subsequent slating that manager Bobby Robson received in the press was one of the factors that led him to confirm that he would be resigning his position at the end of the tournament.
“The quality of the football didn’t quite live up to previous expectations”, were the opening words of Des Lynam on the BBC’s review of the competition, which was produced at the end of 1990. Everything at Italia 90 seemed that bit more polished than in previous competitions. The pictures were razor sharp and the on-screen graphics were, for the time, state of the art. The stadia – in particular the San Siro in Milan and the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa – looked as if they had been dropped from space, so futuristic did they seem to the English supporter, who was still only just coming to terms with the post-Hillsborough consensus that football supporters didn’t have to be caged into barbed, wire-topped death pens. On the surface, the 1990 World Cup was glimpse into the future. At its centre, though, Italia 90 felt as if it had no heart. Too many teams seemed to have turned up determined not to lose rather than to win and defensive football prevailed. The final was probably the worst in living memory.
Lynam was in the studio for the BBC as it sought to maintain its position as the number one football broadcaster, and the inspired choice of “Nessun Dorma”, as sung by Luciano Pavarotti as their title music only seemed to underline their gravitas for such events. The aria, which caught the mood of the British audience and reached number two in the charts, is taken from Turandot by Puccini, and is part of the final act of the opera. In case you were wondering, the final climactic line can be translated into English as:
Vanish, o night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!
ITV had nothing that could compare with this, but they only weakened their case by allowing their coverage to be sponsored for the first time – something that was allowed to be phased in by The 1990 Broadcasting Act. Thus we were treated to the sight of Elton Welsby leaning into the camera and saying, “”This night of despair for Scotland has been brought to you by National Power”. Brian Moore was the main commentator for the tournament, finally allowed loose on an entire World Cup after over twenty years with ITV, with Elton Welsby and Nick Owen back in the studio. The title music that they chose was called “Tutto Il Mondo“, and it was produced by Rod Argent again, this time with Peter Van Hooke, whose previous claim to fame may have been playing the drums on the soundtrack to Spinal Tap, and someone who is not to be confused New Order’s Peter Hook, who was, of course, topping the charts with “World In Motion” at the same time. While not as successful as his (near) namesake’s song, it was at least modern and fresh sounding, not a comment that would be said that often about ITV’s football coverage for the next few years.
The 1990 World Cup, then, was probably the height of the BBC’s domestic domination of sports broadcasting in Britain (Sky Sports would be well and truly on the scene by the time of the next World Cup, although the likelihood of them broadcasting rights to the World Cup finals remains slight, even if a Conservative government wins the next general election) and the start of the decline of ITV’s broadcasting of the tournament. In the next episode of this series, ITV head for a bunker in Dallas, Martin O’Neill insults Robbie Williams while the nation applauds and 2006 sees the picture become quite a lot clearer.