For the TV punditry at this World Cup to be truly “remarkable” – and thereby worthy of an article – it would really have had to stink to the highest of heavens. And at this year’s event, Kevin Keegan was far from the worst of the pundits. So, here goes… It wasn’t just that the commentators and pundits were under-researched and trite; it was that some of them knew it and none of them seemed to care. During Chile’s opening match, ITV’s Clive Tyldesley admitted he didn’t know much about them, explaining that he hadn’t seen much TV coverage of the “Copa Libertadores and the like,” (a club competition, but never mind).
It was a startling admission of unprofessionalism which would be a resignation on the spot in any other form of work. Imagine the uproar if, during coverage of the recent emergency budget, the BBC’s economics editor Hugh Pym had said: “I don’t know much about taxation but that VAT’s a bit steep.” He wouldn’t be the BBC’s economics editor for the Six O’clock News. If anything, Tyldesley compounded his felony by telling us that Chile had top-scored in the South American World Cup qualifying competition and finished only a point behind Brazil. It wasn’t clear, then, on what basis he had snootily laughed off their declared semi-final ambitions, beyond lazily applying Chile’s past record to the present squad.
There was a reason, of course, why Chile’s prospects of a semi-final were slim, namely that they’d have to beat Spain and/or Brazil to get there, and Brazil beat them twice in qualifying. Had they been in the other half of the draw, they may have got as far as… Uruguay. But Tyldesley’s mind wasn’t working even to that basic level. In the not-too-distant past, there were difficulties obtaining footage of qualifying games from around the world. TV coverage and recording technology weren’t extensive enough. But they are now and those difficulties are a thing of the past.
Tyldesley works for a (nominally) major TV station. And I would be shocked if ITV’s budgetary restraints were so tight – even after Adrian Chiles’ wages – that they couldn’t obtain enough footage to give him working knowledge of all 32 finalists. “Having a go” at TV punditry is a game as old as TV punditry itself, of course. The idea of a panel of “experts” was a good one when it emerged on ITV for the Mexico finals. You had combative personalities in Derek Dougan and Malcolm Allison, tactical nous (Allison, again) and the imagination to put it together, which is something that, 40 years ago, Jimmy Hill possessed. No, really.
The format quickly got tired, though. If you think Jimmy Hill as an innovator is an unlikely concept, you’ll struggle with the fact that Jimmy Greaves was a breath of fresh air for TV punditry a mere twelve years later for the Spain finals. But Greaves was only a blip. By 1986, even he wasn’t funny any more. And when it came to expert analysis of foreign teams he was far from the only one over-reliant on national stereotypes at the expense of actually knowing anything about the actual players on screen. Peter Reid, regularly admitting in 2002 that he “didn’t know much about this lot,” was a natural regression. So I’d grown to expect David Pleat to pronounce everybody’s name wrong – to the point of self-parody. I understood when yet another commentator wondered aloud why the Spanish weren’t singing the words to their national anthem. And if Alan Hansen used “pass and move” as an entire sentence one more time, then I just passed and moved on.
But this year’s punditry, in both the studio and commentary box, went one step beyond the inadequacies of the past, almost as if pundits such as Martin Keown had defined “learning from past mistakes” as “learning past mistakes off-by-heart so as to repeat them.” For example, even my world-weary tolerance could not prepare me for Keown’s repeated, ignorant insistence that “Premiership managers will be looking at him” every time any non-Premier League player he’d never heard of (i.e. most of them) trapped a ball. It was embarrassing to hear this phrase used of Nigeria’s Victor Enyeama and Japan’s Yuji Nakazawa, players with extensive international and World Cup experience. It had to be pointed out to Keown that Nakazawa had “102 caps and is 32,” which ought to have embarrassed him into a contritional silence. Instead, Keown tried to laugh off his incompetence (“Championship managers, then”). You try that next time you **** up at work, see where it gets you.
Individual mistakes were too numerous to mention, the one example to fit into this article’s word limit being the insistence that Portugal were the only team not to concede a goal in their finals’ group. There were crass editorial misjudgements, too. It seemed as if every preview of the Netherlands was contractually obliged to refer to “total football.” But analysts continued to make the comparisons long after it was clear that they had no journalistic merit whatsoever. The desperation for an authentic African voice overrode broadcast basics when Emanuel Adebayor was hired. The desperation to maintain a light-hearted tone for the highlights programme led to a terrible misuse of Craig Johnston. Johnston had genuinely interesting and informative things to say about the Jabulani ball but had to make way for “Thatch of the Day” or some such tired “comedy” slot. And I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation for the BBC’s Brazil vs Portugal preview. Even the most cursory glance at their qualifying group table should have led to at least a suspicion that the game would be cautious. And an equally cursory glance at the team-sheets would have triggered a response if there’d been any journalistic instincts in the room.
We’ve all given up on a Brazil preview being based on 2010, rather than 1970, 1982 and Ronaldo. But Lineker and co. seemed to be suggesting that Portugal were about to match them trick-for-trick, which appeared to be based on a combination of Eusebio in 1966 and twenty minutes against a tired North Korea the previous Monday. After twenty minutes of this rubbish, Lineker’s scripted suggestion was that viewers should sue if the game wasn’t a thriller. By half-time, viewers might have felt entitled to sue someone for something. But it wouldn’t have been any of the players. The difference between this personality journalism and the real thing was apparently most evident in the contrast between Fabio Capello’s interviews with Gabby Logan on the BBC and Gabriel Clarke on ITV. The words “and with news from the England camp” were a signal for me to switch over to anything else that wasn’t a soap or tennis, so I couldn’t comment directly. But, looking back, all the interesting, or tetchy, Capello comments that I can recall had Clarke’s voice ahead of them (a rare victory for ITV, that).
One small comment summed it all up for me. Discussing Fernando Torres’s attitude and form had been an exercise in ill-informed speculation for Shearer and Co. When Jurgen Klinsmann joined the panel discussion prior, he began: “When I spoke to Torres earlier…” I just wonder what golf course the rest of them were on at the time. Tucked away in the Robbie Earle ticket touting story was his punditry salary, a cool £175,000 per annum. We can only speculate on how well or otherwise Earle was paid in comparison to others. But you can bet that Hansen et al were not on minimum wage for the duration. For that sort of money, in fact even for minimum wage, we all have a right to expect much more than we got. “I could do that for the money he’s on,” is an oft-repeated criticism of stellar-salaried players. “If you could do that for that money, you would be” was one memorable response. When it comes to TV punditry, we could ALL have done….that.
Such criticisms don’t win any prizes for originality, I know. And I wouldn’t blame you if it gets tedious reading them. But journalistic standards don’t seem to matter when it comes to TV football punditry, which is an insult to viewers. We have a right to demand much more than we get and we should never pass up the opportunity to make that demand.