It has become the cheapest thing in football writing to criticise its television commentators. I almost feel like I’m cheating if I get cheap laughs out of an article on the foibles of Alan Green, Peter Drury et al… So, let’s get serious. This European Championship has seen the usual mix of poor research and inanity from the commentary boxes of both the BBC and ITV. The inanities have come at a much faster rate than I can ever remember. But, as I say, it is the usual stuff. When Craig Burley says he has to “rely on reputation” to comment about international footballers, you calm yourself by remembering that he’s only an ex-footballer, not a journalist… Then you also remember that he is supposed to BE a journalist. And whatever his insights into international football tournaments (he played, and scored, in Scotland’s 1998 World Cup finals campaign), they are no help if he can neither utilise that experience nor recognise Ukraine’s Oleksandr Aliyev other than by “reputation” (DVDs of how he got that reputation must be available to a national broadcaster like ITV).
However, the performance of Jonathan Pearce and Martin Keown in Warsaw at the Czech Republic v. Portugal Euro 2012 quarter-final plumbed further depths of unprofessionalism. Instead of enhancing the viewers’ knowledge and enjoyment of the evening, the pair ruined the latter with their obsession with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and the match referee, Englishman Howard Webb. Pearce’s love-in with Ronaldo has already attracted critical attention across the mainstream media and blogosphere. But while I have enjoyed much of the criticism (and can only aspire to write as well as most of it), I don’t think it has grasped the serious point underlying Pearce’s tone. Both Pearce and Keown are paid, handsomely, to provide a commentary on events in front of them. This they largely failed to do, focusing instead on two facets of a multi-faceted game and doing so uncritically, regardless of whether or not there was criticism to be made.
For the first fifteen minutes of the game, Ronaldo wasn’t really in it. His most visible contribution was a tantrum-ette when a Helder Postiga pass to him was misplaced, surely a concept Ronaldo must be used to by now (ask any Spurs fan). It was kids-in-the-playground stuff, made to look all the funnier by being performed by a fully-grown adult with slicked-back hair. But Ronaldo, the “errant genius” dominated Pearce and Keown’s words. Ronaldo’s first potentially meaningful contribution wasn’t actually very good at all. He made a bit of a horlicks of a defensive header from a corner, which otherwise would have been dealt with by Portugal keeper Rui Patricio….OK, bad example… but the header was unworthy of further comment in the context of the game – the Czechs wasted the situation presented to them, in keeping with their overall display. Yet we got twenty seconds from Keown on Ronaldo’s “incredible spring…like a basketball player.” And for the next twenty minutes, Pearce gave up on the game (which Keown rightly euphemised as “tactically fascinating”) and commentated on Ronaldo. “Ronaldo makes the run there…Ronaldo ignored there…Ronaldo picks his nose there while he thinks no-one’s looking, but I can’t take my eyes off him and he did it so gracefully.”
OK, I may have made that last one up. But it was getting to the stage where the match was developing into ‘Ronaldo v. Czech Republic,’ especially as the Czech’s man-marking policy was starting to fade, as their man markers started to tire. This man-marking was the key tactic of the game to that point but it was overlooked altogether by Pearce. Even when he noticed one of its direct consequences, Czech right-back Theodore Gebre Selaisse finding himself in the centre of defence, Pearce dismissed it as “the Czechs are all over the place at the back.” And on 34 minutes, Pearce dropped all pretensions, greeting a foul on Nani with the declaration “free-kick to Ronaldo.” “Preparing, preening, prolific…” he added, as Ronaldo waited to take said free-kick , before regaling us with a tale of one of his tattooes which, in the mouths of others , would have been incontrovertible evidence that Ronaldo was a prick, but was turned into a homo-erotic paean by Pearce.
“Is this Ronaldo’s time?” Pearce asked, once his mind was back on the game, as Ronaldo ran up to take a free-kick which wasn’t within comprehensible scoring range. And, like William Blake asking whether “those feet in ancient times” ever “walked upon England’s mountains green?” the answer was “no,” as the free-kick rolled semi-pathetically across goal and wide. Moments later, Pearce informed us that “It would have been a goal befitting a maestro,” after a Ronaldo overhead kick. Except he missed. So, like any overhead kick sliced horribly wide, whether in a Sunday league game or a Euro quarter-final, it…er…wasn’t a goal at all. And you doubt whether Pearce would have called Mario Balotelli’s goal against Ireland in such reverential terms. Ronaldo actually DID take control of proceedings late in the half and produced the highlight of most halves of football, let alone the dreck we’d just seen, with control, a turn and shot against the post from out of next-to-nothing. “What we’ve all been waiting to see,” claimed Pearce, incorrectly. “In a league of his own,” noted Keown, over pictures which showed that, despite the brilliance with which Ronaldo fashioned the chance, he chose the wrong option in firing at the near-post, when the rest of the goal was gaping.
As chances came and went for Portugal after the break, Pearce started to fear for his man. “Teams have dominated and lost in this tournament,” he said, citing Holland v Denmark and then realising that it had only happened once – “Greece v Russia” he added, in a vain attempt to get himself out of a hole. “Surely Ronaldo can’t be on a losing side tonight, the way he’s played?” he concluded, by way of self-assurance. And, of course, he wasn’t. He headed the winning goal on 79 minutes, from what might as well have been his own run and cross for all the mention Pearce was giving the provider.
Keown gave Joao Moutinho his due, but only because Keown was boasting that he just said Portugal lacked exactly the sort of drive from midfield Moutinho produced for the goal. Otherwise, the Porto midfielder was airbrushed out of proceedings. Pearce referred to “Ronaldo the match-winner” long before the end of a game which, you had to remind yourself, was still only 1-0. This presumptuousness gave the Czechs a lot of neutral support which their previously insipid display otherwise failed to merit, just to see if Pearce could avoid crying at an equaliser. But Pearce had already shown his ability to put a handbrake turn on his emotions. No commentator misses the opportunity to have a dig at a foreign referee. The flip side of this is English officials being placed beyond criticism at international tournaments, which, for Mark Clattenburg especially, is a stark contrast to the treatment meted out to them at EPL games.
Attitudes towards foreign officials from so-called “lesser” nations by English commentators have always been pig-ignorant, such as the suggestion that an Egyptian ref, who had taken charge of three Cairo derbies, might “struggle on the big occasion.” English referees, like Howard Webb, can handle such occasions. And Pearce was quick to praise Webb for taking “no nonsense from the players.” Both theories suggested that Pearce was so upset at Guy Mowbray being ‘awarded’ the 2010 World Cup Final, he has simply erased the whole occasion from his memory. It also explained Pearce’s discomfort at the mistakes Webb made last night. And he was to prove lucky to have Keown at his side for such moments.
Portugal had two shouts for a penalty in the first half which Pearce concurred with on seeing replay evidence… until he remembered that the ref was Englishman Webb and had to back-pedal furiously (“Webb obviously couldn’t see it”). And though Pearce became the first commentator to rise above “I don’t know what they do I don’t see them making decisions” when discussing goal-line officials, you wonder if he would have been so generous had the officials not been England’s Clattenburg and Martin Atkinson. “He’s a very good referee,” noted Pearce, which is a quality you are entitled to assume for a Euro quarter-final. “He’s had a very, very good tournament,” Keown concurred, before letting out a hearty: “Got it right again, Howard,” when a Portuguese player took a clear dive in the penalty area. Keown, however, failed to add comment when “Howard” failed to book the player for simulation. Mind you, it was Ronaldo.
But when highly-frustrated Czech midfielder David Limbersky lost his cool late on, Webb wasn’t “very good” at all. Limbersky was rightly booked for a late dig as the Portuguese sought to play out time. And Pearce noted that Limbersky had lashed out, off-the-ball and off-camera, immediately afterwards – the sort of off-the-ball call the top commentators get top money to make. Pearce prepared his trademark (and not always inappropriate) sanctimoniousness for Limbersky’s inevitable dismissal and had to backpedal furiously again when Webb took no action, bar a well-pointed finger. Matters got worse after the Czechs’ final attack petered out to less than nothing. Limbersky took an agricultural swipe at the nearest Portuguese player and seemed destined for at least a second yellow. But Webb did not book Limbersky – a clear mistake. And Pearce would have known that, having clocked Limbersky’s increasing ill-temper.
Fortunately, Keown stepped in with another hearty “well done, Howard Webb,” concocting some excuse about how late in the game it was, and the Czechs were going home so it didn’t matter. Ireland’s Keith Andrews, dismissed after a similar late tantrum in Ireland’s last game, may have had a view on that. One of the frustrations at this nonsense was that it took away most of the genuine enjoyment there was to be had at Ronaldo’s display. Like BBC pundit Lee Dixon, I am a “Messi man” when it comes to the “who’s the best in the world?” debate. Yet I couldn’t deny that Ronaldo was very good on Thursday night, frequently lighting up an otherwise dull game. But while Alan Hansen was pushing it to name Moutinho as his man-of-the-match, it was at least a recognition that there were other significant players (Petr Cech, for example). Pearce’s apparent desire to become Ronaldo’s “significant other” and the sycophancy towards Howard Webb, denied us a proper perspective on the game. In short (at last!!), Pearce and Keown were unprofessional. They did their job poorly and embarrassingly. And even though it is the cheapest thing in football writing to criticise its television commentators, I make no apologies for doing so here.
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