England for the English

As well as England, there were 31 other teams in Germany, though there were times when the broadcasters struggled with the idea. Taylor Parkes looks at the relentless melange of jingoism and ignorance from Clive, Peter, Garth, Ian and friends

It was Ian Wright, when asked about Serbia & Montenegro’s defensive frailties, who put it in a nutshell. “I don’t really care about all these other games,” he shrugged, looking slightly exasperated. “I only care about England.”

It was hard to escape the feeling that we were all supposed to think like this. At half-time in Spain’s masterclass against Ukraine, ITV showed a special report about a 1966 Routemaster bus someone had painted to look like a St George’s flag. Two days later, they previewed the hotly anticipated match between Holland and Ivory Coast with an overview of England’s 1966 World Cup campaign. “We’ll be hearing a lot about Ecuador in the next five days,” screamed Clive Tyldesley as the South Americans reached the second round (we didn’t, of course, apart from how supposedly they eat guinea pigs), “but Sunday night in Stuttgart will be all about how England perform.” This is the way of the English media – the world’s most inclusive international event is a challenge to their insularity and they choose to respond with patriotic defiance. By the end of June, self-respecting viewers were more thoroughly sick of England than they were of that bastard in the advert who kicks his purple Y-fronts on to his friend’s head.

It’s true that much of English football, and thus its attendant media, is a haven for archaic attitudes, a haunt for ghosts of empire. According to John Motson, Trinidad & Tobago’s game against England was “the greatest day in their sporting history” – what made it greater than their first ever World Cup appearance a few days previously was never explained, but clues can be found in the obsessive attention given to Chris Birchall, “the only white man in the team”, by presenters who might as well have donned linen suits and pith helmets. ITV described Angola v Portugal as “sibling rivalry”: one can only assume that Peter Drury’s big brother colonised his bedroom, siphoned off its natural resources and sold the young Peter into slavery. During England v Paraguay, Motty produced a surreal gem straight out of the 1950s: “We do apologise for the shadows on the pitch… but these pictures are coming from the host broadcaster.”

The real problem, though, is a clumsy populism that identifies patriotism with contempt for others – the same contempt that splatters piazzas with vomit and sees cultural difference as a thrown gauntlet. At a press conference, Leo Beenhakker dared to complain about English coverage of the group stage (“It’s as if Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago didn’t exist”). Back in the studio, Terry Venables growled that England had to “wipe the smile off his face”. As in our news media, there’s an unstated assumption: faraway countries are important only in terms of how they affect “Western interests” – or, in this case, the England football team.

The blockheaded bullishness and alpha-male pretensions of Andy Townsend – the loudest, proudest Englishman ever to win 70 full Irish caps – are well suited to this world. Not content with prescribing “a visit from Stan Boardman” to cheer up the sulking Oliver Kahn, he made Ruud Gullit snigger by opining that Basque players not feeling Spanish was “pathetic”. (Gullit: “It’s more complicated than that, Andy.” Townsend: “No, it isn’t.”) Gabby Logan, meanwhile, looks more and more like a joke no one gets, least of all Gabby herself. At half-time in the unrelenting action movie that was Holland v Portugal, she announced that “what we really want to know is which of these teams England can beat more easily”. As Gullit and Venables collapsed into laughter, she sat smiling like a grandmother who has no idea why what she just said was funny (though to be fair, Ruud and Terry spent the whole tournament giggling and socking each other on the arm – where do they get their energy from?).

The BBC seem unaware that, outside Newcastle, glowering, iron-elbowed Alan Shearer is not a national hero. Yet he can’t have been chosen for his abilities as a pundit: at half-time in France v Switzerland, after Martin O’Neill had explained precisely why France had been so appalling, Shearer was asked why France had been so appalling. “I just don’t understand it,” he barked, forehead the colour of a ripe beetroot.

Garth Crooks’s “interview” technique is borrowed from the Washington press corps – tasked with grilling members of the England camp, he presents them with a compliment or a ready-made excuse for their latest failings, and they agree with him. On a good day, he can touch new heights of rank stupidity. “Wayne, you’ve had your foot broken by two Portuguese defenders. Isn’t it time you broke their hearts?” This may actually have had a motivational effect, assuming Rooney misheard the word “hearts” as “testicles”.

Even the preposterous Alan Ball joined the gang later in the tournament, informing us within minutes that “when you win the World Cup you become a legend. A national legend.” He also insisted on sharing his tactical wisdom, despite a managerial record that flatters Mick McCarthy, but the bluster charmed Ray Stubbs, who pronounced the slo-mo nightmare of England v Ecuador “positive all round, then”.

English failure brings on this blindness worse than the prospect of English success. Who, for instance, dared mention that Frank Lampard spent five games playing like a fat horse? “Peter Crouch’s reputation continues to grow,” claimed Steve Ryder after the T&T game, in which the hapless Crouch gave what may have been, hair-pulling goal and all, the most inept performance of the entire World Cup. This is partly due to the notorious omertà in English football, enforced by ex-pros and indulged by presenters in awe of them (only Adrian Chiles is not guilty), but it’s ultimately rooted in what Drury, half- apologising to Scottish viewers, called the “necessary Anglo-centrism” of TV coverage.

Patriotism ensures degeneration. For as long as a country’s root problems cannot be addressed, they’ll continue to putrefy. “Why do England always do this to us?” wailed Tyldesley, as they turned the game with Sweden into high farce. This is an eternally rhetorical question, because the answer – they’re poorly coached from birth, encouraged to believe their own hype, and ultimately not that good – is off-limits. It’s one thing for a departing Sven to get it in the neck, quite another to seriously examine why nothing ever changes. Better to stick with scapegoats and self-pity, or you frighten the horses. Ironically, the song chosen for the BBC’s trailers was The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again.

But then someone at the Beeb clearly has a sense of humour (and it isn’t Mark Lawrenson). For the first week of the tournament, late-night highlights were followed by gung-ho movies about the Second World War. When the war films dried up, the slot was filled with a season of English horror.

From WSC 234 August 2006. What was happening this month

Comments (1)
Comment by Applemask 2012-05-28 20:33:53

The knee-jerk reaction of overt, borderline cartoonish negativity doesn't help either.