The World Cup on UK TV, Part Four: A Lifestyle Choice

by | Jun 3, 2018

Where, exactly, the wave of optimism that swept over England with regard to football as the 1990s started to bed in came from is something of a mystery. Some might argue that ecstasy had a part to play in it all. Others might argue that the knowledge that change of some sort now had to come – the 1990 World Cup finals came just sixteen months after the horror of Hillsborough – was subconciously fuelled a belief that, well, at least now things couldn’t get any worse. Perhaps it was the filtration through of elements of fanzine culture. Perhaps it was the influence of an ever more sophisticated and polished media. It could have been all of these and other factors besides combined and more, of course.

The 1990 World Cup finals were a great leap forward in terms of the presentation of football on British television. Both on the BBC and ITV, the game was given a degree of sophistication that it never been associated with before. On the BBC, this started from the top. Football on the television in the twenty-first century is swimming with slow motion montages of goals set to dramatic music, and it was the BBC who provided the template for this. It is difficult to overstate how left-field their choice of Pavarotti’s performance of “NEssun Dorma” was in 1990. This (and, of course, the theme tune to Match Of The Day) was, after all, the sound of televised football in the UK, still awash with same the swooping guitars as it had ten years earlier.

The BBC positioned the 1990 World Cup finals as high drama, high passion and inevitable tragedy. The opening titles turn to opera, art, and ballet in rapid succession. It’s forty seconds in before we see any football (apart from the background image of a crowd scene), and when we do it’s Pele, celebrating his goal in the 1970 World Cup final, Johan Cruyff, turning a Swedish defender inside-out in 1974, Maradona skipping through a hapless defence with the ball tied to his feet, Klinsmann swooping like a bird of prey, Van Basten beaming in celebration of a job well done, before finishing off with flashes of Ireland, Scotland and England, and Marco Tardelli losing his mind in the Bernebeu in 1982. The parallels they were drawing weren’t difficult to decipher.

ITV went with a more contemporary take on it all. All clean lines and understated blacks and greys, the title music was “Tutti Al Mondi”, a piece of opera drifting into the sort of background music that one might have expected to hear in a Soho modern jazz cafe at the time. If nothing else, comparing them with opening titles from just a few years earlier demonstrates how important the arrival of computer graphic technology was in the development of television presentation. With Sky still a minor player, the identity of BBC and ITV football coverage mattered in a way that it will likely never do – probably never can do – again. Football was becoming a marketplace, and the marketplace hasn’t got time for free to air duopolies. But Sky wasn’t there in the summer of 1990. And it wasn’t only the BBC and ITV who were dragging television coverage of the tournament into the modern day, either. The Italian state broadcasters RAI provided a better quality of picture than had ever been seen before, numerous inventive new camera angles, and stylish, elegant computer graphics.

But these modern developments weren’t entirely positive, though. The 1990 World Cup finals were the first for which the sponsorship of programmes was used by ITV. With new laws allowing this having been passed the year before and ITV’s weather already sponsored, they signed a contract with National Power for a sposorship deal for the tournament of the sort so familiar all over our screens nowadays. This was also the first tournament for which a satellite broadcaster had the rights to broadcast it. Eurosport covered the tournament after winning a high court injunction allowing it.

On ITV, Brian Moore finally got to actually go to a World Cup finals, freed from his anchor role and packed off to Italy as their lead commentator. Nick Owen hosted from what may have been the basement of a Soho modern jazz cafe in London, while Elton Welsby managed to get to games. For the BBC, Des Lynam was at the cusp of beginning his ascension to the status of National Treasure, though he fluffed his first lines of the tournament and left at the end of his first day believing that he’d lost his job. John Motson still ruled the roost over Barry Davies in the commentary box. As well as Moore, ITV took Alan Parry, John Helm, Gerry Harrison and, making his World Cup finals debut, a young Tyldesley called Clive.

When they got to the sharp end of the tournament, however, it was the BBC that won this time around. The viewing figure for England’s semi-final defeat to West Germany was around twenty-five million people, and around two-thirds of them watched it on the BBC. After enormous interest from the public, “Nessum Dorma” was rush-released as a single and reached the number two position in the charts. Previous pieces had caught the imagination before – the BBC’s music for the 1978 tournament, Argentine Melody (which was written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and performed by Rod Argent, albeit under a pseudonym), reached number fourteen in the charts – but none had quite like this one did.

By the time of the 1994 World Cup finals, of course, it was a whole new ball game. Sky Sports had swooped to take the live television coverage of the newly formed Premier League in 1992. There has been no live top flight football on free to air television in England now for twenty-six years, more than three times the amount of time during which live league football was available to all. And despite the success of their coverage of the 1990 finals, it seemed unlikely that either the BBC or ITV would be able to repeat the viewing figures that they managed four years earlier. For the first time since 1938, this tournament featured no home nations at all, only the Republic of Ireland, who became Everybody’s Second Choice in the UK as though by default.

England’s failure was entirely played out on live television, of course, but the most important broadcast of this World Cup anywhere on British TV came from Channel Four, a company which has never once shown a World Cup finals match. For reasons that remain unknown, the FA allowed a camera crew to shadow Graham Taylor as his team failed to make it to the United States of America. The footage was then edited into An Impossible Job, a fly on the wall documentary first broadcast on the 21st of January 1994, and it offered up first hand evidence of the cruelty of the tabloid press, the lack of English tactical sophistication at the highest level of its game, and ultimately the extent to which the man in the job wasn’t suitable for that position, amongst many other things.

The broadcast was largely treated as a tragicomedy by a press that seemed almost entirely blind to their role in Taylor’s humiliation, and An Impossible job has gone on to become a cult favourite, especially amongst supporters old enough to remember it from the first time around. The press had, of course, gone after Bobby Robson in a similar fashion up to and through the start of England’s 1990 campaign, only apparently and very suddenly forgetting their weeks of vitriolic attacks as Robson’s team unsteadily picked its way through the tournament. Would they have softened on Taylor under similar circumstances? Possibly, but we’ll never know for sure.

With the USA having three time zones, none of which were particularly convenient for British television audiences, the 1994 finals were challenging for the British viewer to navigate. ITV’s coverage of the finals was threadbare, with highlights and preview shows now dropped, and the company was ridiculed for coverage from a studio in Dallas which, it was claimed by critics, looked as though it was coming live from inside a dungeon. They didn’t fair much better on the music front, either. Such was their scaling back that they opted to use Gloryland, FIFA’s official piece of music for the tournament. There was a small problem with this, though. It was dreadful. Performed by Darryl Hall and Sounds of Blackness, it had featured on a compilation album that also featured Tears For Fears, James, Fleetwood Mac and, umm, Gary Glitter, and fell somewhere between a hymn, soft focus rock balladry and gospel.

The BBC merely refined what they’d perfected four years earlier. Leonard Bernstein’s America from West Side Story was the fairly predictable choice of music, but with ITV’s coverage of the tournament being so underwhelming, the corporation really only faced open goals in order to win hearts and minds. There was even a little backstage drama, with newspapers paying a surprisingly high amount of attention to the fact the BBC chose Barry Davies to commentate on a World Cup final for the first – and only time. Davies’ reward was a final that was arguably even worse than the previous one, four years earlier. Brazil and Italy played out a listless goalless draw under the burning hot California sun before Brazil became the first team to win a World Cup from a penalty shootout. There wasn’t, in all honesty, a great deal for him to describe.

For the World Cup finals, that high of 1990 hasn’t been repeated, and it doesn’t feel particularly likely that they will in the foreseeable future. The BBC and ITV still rule the roost in terms of showing the competition, but the status of the World Cup doesn’t feel as high in England as it did, say, thirty years ago. Concentrations of money and talent in certain places have ensured that the peak of club football offers the ultimate football experience to the modern supporter. For an ever-diminishing number of watchers, the tournament remains football’s big global party, an opportunity to watch three live matches every day, fill in wall charts and collect Panini stickers. For many, though, returns from watching this competition are diminishing. Not only is the standard of player in the group stages considerably lower than in elite league and cup competitions, but the very layout of the tournament itself seems to encourage the avoidance of defeat, as has been demonstrated by the reductive football seen during its early stages.

Perhaps this is the key to understanding the World Cup finals and their place in the twenty-first century. The government’s crown jewels rules on sports events which have to be shown on free-to-air television keep the World Cup on the BBC and ITV at present, but it is striking that we seldom hear much complaining from Sky about it. Perhaps they feel that the amount of money that they’d be required to pay for coverage of a competition that doesn’t really seem to be growing in popularity at the moment doesn’t add up. They’ll continue to fight tooth and nail for their Premier League rights and we can likely expect them to bid again for Champions League rights, will Sky, but there are no moves towards changing the crown jewels expected on the part of the government it the moment. Will this change? We might have to wait and see how much damage the next two World Cups being held in Russia and Qatar do to the tournament’s reputation before we find out.

Part One: New Technologies – The growth of football on the television in the pre-satellite era, from the BBC’s first coverage of the World Cup in 1954 to the 1962 tournament, when mes could still only be shown a couple of days after they were first played.

Part Two: The White Heat of Technology – The arrival of satellite technology beams the 1966 tournament around the world, while the 1970 tournament brings the arrival of colour television and the beginnings of a true ratings war between the BBC and ITV.

Part Three: England’s Dreaming – A sudden decline in the performances of the England team coincide with broadcasters being able to cover the World Cup finals in full, before a decline in interest in the game starts to impact upon their interest in even showing it.