Alex Massie

Annals of Dismal Punditry: World Cup Edition

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One of the stranger aspects of watching World Cup coverage in the United States is ESPN's choice of colour commentator and studio analyst. Who knew that what this tournament really needs is Robbie Mustoe's analysis? Then there's Steve McManaman and Ally McCoist and Efan Ekoku all of whom are working for the Americans for, frankly, mysterious reasons. Not all of it works.

Then again, the quality of analysis on the BBC and ITV has been abysmal and actually, I think, worse than what ESPN offers. Tom English has a splendid, righteous, column in the Scotsman today that sets about Shearer and Hansen and Chiles and the rest of them in fine, proper, necessary style:

Before the Algeria versus Slovenia game in Group C on Sunday, [Alan] Shearer seemed to be speaking for the entire BBC panel when he said, "Our knowledge of these two teams is limited." Limited! What the former England striker was saying was that he hadn't done his homework, that he hadn't spoken to any of his vast array of contacts in the game, hadn't tapped into the BBC's huge research machinery, hadn't even bothered, seemingly, to peruse the internet for some background on Algeria and Slovenia or even flick through a newspaper or a magazine. Shearer was content to sit in front of the cameras and tell the viewers that, really, he didn't know much. Hardly a revelation to those of us who have groaned our way through his anodyne commentaries in the past, but embarrassing all the same.

Why do the BBC deem that acceptable? Why is Shearer not taken aside and told, 'Listen, if you can't be bothered doing some research on this game then get lost'.

[...] And here's another one. The Beeb got carpeted by some viewers for their treatment of that Algeria game. So what happened before the kick-off in yesterday's lunch-time match between New Zealand and Slovakia? In a six-and-a-half minute introduction just one player out of the 22 on show was given a name-check, and here is how it happened.

Lee Dixon: "Slovakia have got some decent players, Hamsik, the pick of them. Young player, plays on the left side."

Gary Lineker: "He's at Napoli."

Lee Dixon: "That's right."

Alan Hansen (chuckling): "Somebody gave you him, by the way."

What Hansen meant, I think, was that his colleagues must have been fed the Hamsik reference by another party, that they couldn't have come up with his name all by themselves. It's not like Dixon or Lineker produced a dossier of facts about Hamsik, a file of information on who he is and where he has been. All they did was mention his name and the fact that he was rather good. That was it. Hansen seemed to think this was worthy of a gently-mocking put-down, as if the other two were some kind of class swots. As such, he was almost revelling in his own ignorance.

There's a lot of this going about, on BBC and ITV. The level of punditry is cringe-making. It's lowest common denominator stuff. Patronising and insulting, much of it.

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Lord knows we don't expect much from ITV these days but at least notionally the BBC are expected to do better. Instead, however, viewers are treated as though they're six-year old thickos who can't be expected to have any interest in tactics, theory, personalities or anything that demands Gary Lineker and his mates actually do some bleedin' work to inform their audience about anything that might actually be happening on the field. Instead it's all very chummy and heaven forbid that anyone let the side down by displaying any actual knowledge or insight. That would be cheating and showing off you see.

Patronising and insulting? For sure. But also utterly, depressingly parochial. There seems to be a presumption that no-one can be expected to be interested in any foreign player unless he's had some connection to the English game. For that matter, apparently it's a rule that we need a "report" from the England camp at half-time in every game because, of course, the audience can't be expected to concentrate on or care about anything other than the "latest" from the England squad.

You get the impression from the BBC and ITV panels that if anyone showed them a website such as, say, Zonal Marking they'd snigger and dismiss it all as "fancy" stuff for "clever poofs" and "foreigners". It's probably a stretch to say that the TV coverage demonstrates why few people in this country are very good at football but the anti-intellectualism and worse the actual boastful-philistinism on display might suggest to a visiting Martian that people in Britain aren't actually very interested in football.

Perhaps this shouldn't surprise. Our commentators, for instance, invariably remind us (whether Scotland or Wales or England are playing) that the opposition are "technically superior" which rather gives the impression that being technically-gifted (or, as it's known elsewhere "good at football") is some mysterious foreign trick that should probably be outlawed by the authorities since, obviously, we can't expect our lads to be as technically-gifted or tactically-supple as these dastardly foreigners who spend their days practising and thinking about football. Which, dash it, has to be tantamount to cheating. Right?

And the pity of it is that there's so much good football writing and analysis out there. But are the BBC and ITV interested in any of it? No they're not. Better to giggle with Gary and the Alans, revelling in ignorance and pocketing money for old rope, stale cliches and patronising, parochial guff.

UPDATE: And now Lineker is introducing tonight's South Africa vs Uruguay match by assuming that "everyone" wants the hosts to win. All his pals on the panel agree. But actually, the history of Uruguayan football is fascinating and they're not there just to be the opposition tonight. The BBC has decided on the "narrative" however and must tell us how to think about the game. I'd resist this even if I didn't have a brace of Uruguayans in my Fantasy World Cup squad.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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