Viewers watching BBC1’s Saturday evening candyfest “Strictly Come Dancing” might have been somewhat surprised to see Bruce Forsyth announce the news that, after everything, the BBC had managed to secure the rights to show highlights of the World Cup qualifying match between Ukraine and England and that they would be shown later that evening on BBC1. The BBC somewhat limply put the late announcement down to “contractual reasons”, but it is not unreasonable to take a rough guess at what may have happened.
Kentaro, the sports rights company, had brought the rights to the match and were showing it exclusively over the internet, claiming just twenty-four hours beforehand that this match was “all about the internet” and that it was . The most rational explanation for the match suddenly not being “all about the internet” would be financial, but that the BBC were prevented from confirming that they would be showing the match in order to stem the number of people that would forsake the internet stream for the televised highlights. There had been concern that the technical infrastructure might not be able to withstand the demand, but only around half of their ceiling limit of million subscribers was reached, so this didn’t end up being an issue.
It would be idle speculation to wonder whether it was also in the BBC’s contract to write a favourable report about Kentaro’s experiment, but they certainly did so here. Other reviews were more mixed. The Guardian commented that it appeared that commentator Tony Jones didn’t appear to be at the stadium and that he and co-commentator David Pleat (recently released by ITV) seemed to struggle slightly with the identification of players. They also sent someone to a cinema to sample the peculiar atmosphere of watching a match at the local Odeon but this turned out to be a series of rather tortured film analogies, although the comment that “there’s no way of escaping how dreadful a few blokes shouting about In-ger-lund actually sound” will have resounded with anyone that has ever watched an England match in anything like a public place.
However strange the circumstances may have been in which one might have watched the match, it couldn’t have been as strange as what actually went on in Dnipropetrovsk. Play was held up twice in the early stages of the match as flares rained down on Robert Green’s goal, with the referee reported as having threatened to call the match off after play was held up for a second time. If Green was worried about his own personal safety, he didn’t have to worry about it for long. There was no doubt that his challenge on Artem Milevskiy was a penalty or that he should be sent off for the challenge, although Rio Ferdinand (whose judgement appears to have gone west over the last few months) put him in an unenviable by misjudging the long ball that let Milevskiy in to start with. David James replaced Green but obliged Andriy Shevchenko by diving as far out of the way of his penalty as possible. Shevchenko, however, hit the opposite post and the ball bounced out.
Ukraine’s goal came just over a quarter of an hour later. Ashley Cole’s clumsily lost possession on the edge of the penalty area gave the ball to Sergiy Nazarenko, and he recovered enough to throw himself in front of Nazarenko’s shot, deflecting the ball past the wrong-footed James for what turned out to be the only goal of the match. England had their moments: Frank Lampard shot inches wide more or less straight from the kick-off and Wayne Rooney came similarly close in the dying seconds, but Ukraine also hit the inside of the post, forced a couple of decent saves from David James and were decent value for their win.
The result was a critical one for Ukraine. They now need only win against Andorra on Wednesday night and Croatia will be out of the competition altogether. However, the issue of the flares is one that they need to address. They are supposed to be co-hosting the European Championships in a little under three years’ time and cannot afford the risk to player safety that occurred on Saturday evening being repeated. If reports on the state of their preparation for the tournament are correct this is the last thing that the Ukrainian FA needs at present, and the buck stops with them for such behaviour. A hostile atmosphere is a hostile atmosphere and players should obviously be prepared for away matches to be difficult, but a line was clearly crossed in Dnipropetrovsk on Saturday evening.
For England, this result may even be a blessing in disguise. They played reasonably well, and the defeat may even temper the worst excesses of the press, for whom articles about how people shouldn’t be getting over-excited about England’s chances of winning the World Cup have become second in quantity only to articles about how people should be getting over-excited about England’s chances of winning the World Cup. If this result undoes some of the hype which has been – depressingly and inevitably – starting to fester in certain corners of the press, then we may have cause to be grateful for it next summer. The suspicion remains that we may have to continue to spend most of the next few months singing loudly to ourselves with our fingers in our ears if we want to avoid the worst of the hype, though.