Saturday 17 January ~
This week saw the start of a new series of American Idol, a programme that clearly has nothing to do with music, but everything to do with facial expressions. The two most important expressions are joy (“I’m through to the next round!”) and disappointment (“I’m not”). Squealing and jumping around accompany the former, dejection and hopefully tears the latter. It’s very similar to the way that television covers modern football.
Broadcasters just cannot get enough of the fact that when a team scores or wins, it is not just the players who are happy, but the fans and the entire coaching staff too. By contrast, they have astonishingly discovered, when a team concedes or loses, the opposite is true. We have to be reminded of this after every single goal, often in slow motion. Goal for Arsenal, say – Arsene jumps off the bench, clenches his fist, runs around a few yards, then gets a hug or two from his subordinates (you can bet there’s a race among toadies at every club to be the first to congratulate the boss). And guess what the fans are doing – jumping up and down and cheering, all smiles and happiness and laughter!
Goal against, let’s say, Middlesbrough – Gareth is unhappy. He may momentarily turn away from the pitch in disgust. He may adopt a concentrated stare, as though quickly working out a tactical scheme to get back into the game. If he’s gone 3-0 down, he may just hold his head in his hands. The rest of his staff look at their feet, or just look vacant, as though they have nothing to do with this team. And the fans? Even if some of them are defiantly singing, you won’t see them on TV. The best shots are the looks of utter despair and disbelief that, in the course of a football game, their team has let in a goal.
Fan shots used to be restricted to impressive mass displays of scarf choreography and the odd cheeky chappy with a rattle. Managers were left alone because the old style boss betrayed nothing but a stony expression, regardless of events on the field. He didn’t even deign to rise from the bench. Of course back in the 1970s there weren’t enough cameras to catch his every wince, shrug, wave and curse, but in the pre-Sky era the manager was largely immune to the epidemic of skittish hysteria that’s smitten his latter-day counterpart. Increased stakes have meant hugely increased drama, fabricated or not, so that games are no longer about whether 11 random men are better at scoring goals than another random 11 men. They are Big Events whose importance is so relentlessly pushed that a few of those fans looking like they’re about to top themselves seem to have been duped into believing they are experiencing something significant within the greater scheme of human destiny.
And like so many aspects of TV coverage, the focus on emotion is distracting, repetitive, irritating, bland and comically stupid. The perpetuation of the same dance/trance cycle is laid on so thick that it reduces the genuine and spontaneous feeling in the game to a media-managed cliche built on sentimentality and saleability. Through the eyes of TV producers, football’s highlights have become nothing more than a series of preordained cheers and tears. And you don’t even get Simon Cowell’s snippy sarcasm for light relief. Ian Plenderleith