The World Cup on UK TV, Part One: New Technologies

by | May 18, 2018

These days, of course, it rather feels as though the sole purpose of professional football is to drive television revenues, but it wasn’t ever thus. The world’s first television station didn’t go on air until 1928, and the technical limitations of the time meant that only snippets of film footage of the first two tournaments, held in Uruguay in 1930 and Italy in 1934, still exist.  The 1938 finals in France attracted more filming of the tournament – to the point that, for the first time, an official film of it could be produced – but the outbreak of war in 1939 brought a temporary halt to television broadcasting in a lot of countries, Britain included. On the day after war was declared, the BBC closed down the television service that it had only opened three years earlier. It would not restart until 1946.

Football in the UK enjoyed a spectacular boom in attendances in the immediate post-war years, but the limitations of technology meant that television was somewhat slow to this particular party. The amateur game was still held in high esteem at the time, and in October 1946 the BBC sent its cameras to Underhill to broadcast its first ever league football, an Athenian League match between Barnet and Wealdstone. The experiment was, albeit falteringly, a success, but both football clubs themselves and the game’s governing bodies were reluctant to take it much further, coupling a degree of distrust in the medium that seems almost unbelievable to modern eyes with a desire not to have those record crowds affected by allowing television cameras into grounds.

Even that first non-league match, however, had shown up the ongoing shortcomings of the nascent medium to a glaring extent. The Barnet vs Wealdstone match could only be broadcast live because it was within twenty miles of the Alexandra Palace transmitter in North London. With satellite technology still a decade and a half away, broadcasting anything live was a challenge, and it was just about impossible outside of the environs of the capital city. Still, though, this period did at least bring about one significant act of reunion. The home nations had left FIFA in 1928 over a dispute regarding payments to amateur players. They returned to the fold in 1946, and FIFA offered two places to the home nations for the 1950 tournament in Brazil for the top two teams in the 1949/50 Home International Championship. Scotland announced that they would only travel to Brazil if they won the tournament, so, after England defeated Scotland by a goal to nil at Hampden Park in the final match of the competition to win the tournament, Scotland did indeed turn down their place, as did Ireland, who were subsequently offered it in their place.

Considering the nature of their performance there, it might well have been a relief to England that there was no television coverage of those 1950 World Cup finals. Brazil used the tournament as an opportunity to test broadcast and film matches at home in preparation for the launch of their domestic television service later that year, but there was no television service to broadcast matches to. Some matches were filmed, but the only bits of information to reach home were frequently delayed newspaper reports, detailing England’s misadventures in South America. By the beginning of the 1950s, distrust towards the BBC within football circles was starting to grow. The 1949/50 season saw a small drop in attendances overall and, with fears over the effects of television on attendances growing (even though Football League matches were still not being shown) disputes between the BBC and the FA hit reached a low that agreement to broadcast the 1952 FA Cup final was only reached the day before the match was played  – a sign of things to come for the next three decades of the relationship between football’s governing bodies and those who sought to bring the game to a mass home audience.

The following year, however, was the year in which television made its big shift from being little more than a minority interest to being the dominant broadcasting medium. More than twenty million people tuned in to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The decision to even allow television cameras into Westminster Abbey for the ceremony had been contentious, but the size of the audience seemed to vindicate it and with this sudden growth came a greater desire on the part of the BBC to be at the forefront of technological innovations that would drive its further development. The European Broadcasting Union had been founded in 1950 with the aim of sharing content, collaborating on projects, lobbying for the rights of public service broadcasters and driving technological change. The Continental Television Exchange – better known as Eurovision – was established in 1953 between eight nations to create a network through which programmes could be simulcast across Europe, with the coronation being their first broadcast.

Eurovision’s big significant event of the following year would be a series of eighteen programmes to be simulcast across eight national broadcasters over the summer of 1954, of which nine would be matches from that summer’s World Cup finals in Switzerland. So it was that the first live World Cup finals match shown live on the television in the UK was the opening match of that summer’s tournament, played between France and Yugoslavia. Individual broadcasters didn’t get much of a say over covering their own nations and matches not shown live still had to be recorded on film and shipped back home, meaning a three day delay on any coverage being broadcast, but considering the scale of the challenge of doing this with the technology at their disposal, it all passed off without too many significant technical hitches. When qualification for the next finals began in September of that year, it became commonplace for matches involving the home nations to be shown live on the television.

By the time of the next finals, to be held in Sweden in 1958, the media landscape in the UK had shifted again. Commercial television landed in England in 1955, with the launch of Independent Television (ITV) in the London area, despite the opposition of some, who felt that advertising on television programmes would lead to a drop in the quality of programming and an unhealthy influence on children. A network based on a curious mxiture of the Reithian values of the BBC and the more populist leanings of others started to form a patchwork of companies across the country, with the Independent Television Authority offering new licenses to broadcast as new transmitters became available. ITV’s first live international football match came in November 1955 with a match between England and Spain that was shown in the London area on both ITV and the BBC.

Sweden had been chosen to host the 1958 World Cup finals unopposed eight years earlier, and having launched a television service in 1956 of a higher quality than that available in the UK at that time were a perfect host for Eurovision to repeat their coverage of four years earlier. Eleven matches were shown live, though for the second tournament in a row individual broadcasters had little to no say over which matches these would be. The sole exception to this was the host nation, whose matches were shown at times which didn’t clash with other matches in order that they could be shown live on the television. With all four of the home nations having qualified for the finals for the first (and to date only) time, two of Englands matches were broadcast live – the match against Brazil and a play-off match against the USSR which ended in their elimination from the tournament – along with Wales’ goalless draw against Sweden and Northern Ireland’s against West Germany, whilst Scotland missed the Eurovision cut altogether. Despite making up a quarter of the teams in the quarter-finals, however, neither Wales nor Northern Ireland featured on the television, with Eurovision going with the match between Sweden and the USSR. The final, between Brazil and Sweden, was shown live on both the BBC and ITV.

Chile saw off a bid from Argentina to host the 1962 tournament, but whilst the technology now existed that could broadcast it around the world in theory, it was still not quite time for this to happen in practice just yet. The 1962 World Cup finals were shown live across South America, but with Telstar’s first satellite coverage coming six days after the final of the competition, European broadcasters had to make a decision over what level of resources to commit to a tournament from which they would not be able to broadcast matches for three days after they’d been played, with film canisters having to be flown back from Chile and then edited prior to being broadcast. ITV opted out altogether, but the BBC sent a skeleton commentary team of Kenneth Wolstenholme and David Coleman to lead a team of just ten people in South America. The BBC showed highlights of matches, apart from group matches involving England, which were shown in their entirety, delayed by two days. England’s involvement in the competition ended at the quarter-final stage with defeat at the hands of Brazil. Those who wanted to follow the tournament live could do so on the radio, but even the final – shown in its entirety – could only be shown two days after it was played.

The four years since the last tournament had only seen the profile of the game on the television grow, though. The 1960 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt had been broadcast live across Europe from Hampden Park by the BBC, arguably the definitive club match of the age. ITV had, albeit briefly and unsuccessfully, brought Football League action to our screens in the autumn of the same year. It should probably, therefore, be somewhat unsurprising that the 1962 finals in turn brought perhaps the World Cup finals’ first iconic television moment. This didn’t, however, come on the pitch. The fact that matches weren’t being shown live meant that the commentators could front their own programmes, and when Chile met Italy in the quarter-finals of the competition in Santiago and spent ninety minutes kicking seven bells out of each other, David Coleman decided to preface the BBC’s highlights of the match with a bit of editorialising that scaled hilarious heights of pomposity:

The game that you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football possibly in the history of the game. Chile versus Italy – this is the first time that these countries have met. We hope it will be the last. The national motto of Chile reads “by reason or by force.” Today, the Chileans,were prepared to be reasonable. The Italians only used force. The result was a disaster for the World Cup. Now, if the World Cup is to survive in its present form, something has got to be done about teams that play like this. Indeed, after seeing the film tonight, you at home may well think that teams that play in this manner ought to be immediately expelled from the competition. Just see what you think.

All of this was delivered, arms folded and with the demeanour of a schoolmaster angry at the audience for having the temerity to watch such a pornographic display of football in the first place. What viewers subsequently saw didn’t quite match Coleman’s introduction. Whilst both teams were squarely to blame for what happened, English referee Ken Aston’s performance was weak to the point that he might as well not have been not been there and the Italian team were at least as much sinned against as sinners themselves. They had two players sent off, but Aston completely missed Chile’s Leonel Sanchez punching Italy’s captain Humberto Maschio, breaking his nose, and then hitting Mario David, who was sent off for retaliation. Chile won the game by two goals to nil, but even considerable coverage of the violence – which wasn’t limited to this match: the first eight games brought three broken legs and four red cards – brought a feeble response from FIFA.

Such a (lack of) reaction was somewhat surprising. Stanley Rous, the head of FIFA, was English, and England had been chosen to host the 1966 tournament. Otherwise, no small part of the decision to award the 1966 competition to England had been based on the fact that the GPO had been partly responsible for the development of the Telstar satellite, and FIFA’s belief was that hosting the tournament there would be perfect for it to be, for the first time, broadcast live around the world. Would FIFA want a tournament like that of 1962 broadcast around the world, including new territories which hadn’t yet succumbed to football’s charms? As things would turn out, the 1966  World Cup finals would provide pockets of violence and controversy as severe as anything seen four years earlier, although things weren’t quite as bad as they had been in Chile. At least, as we’ll see in the next part of this series, British broadcasters throwing their all into their coverage of the tournament would provide something of a prototype for every tournament to follow, right the way up to the present day.