England’s dreaming

With no home nation to cheer on, we could have been spared the usual jingoism. But to Taylor Parkes's fury, the BBC and especially ITV missed no opportunity to scrape a reference to good old Blighty

As the most promising international tournament for years got under way, the pundits tried to look on the bright side. “When your own teams are in it,” suggested Andy Townsend, “you don’t really watch the other teams.” Well, anyone who remembers the TV coverage of the last World Cup can vouch for that. So did this mean England’s absence from Euro 2008 would spare us that obsessive Anglocentricism which makes international football on British TV so uniquely aggravating, such an insult to the intelligence (not to mention the Scots, Irish and Welsh)? Hardly. It just meant our patriotic pundits had to try a little harder.

Before the teams were even out on the pitch for the opening game, John Motson was off, gibbering about the tournament’s Premier League players as though anything too exotic might cause a nationwide switch-off. Perhaps you can almost understand it. The way they see it, they’re trying to sell these games to an early-evening audience with little interest in “unknown” foreigners tippy-tapping a ball around, only breaking into a run when necessary, rarely gurning or shaking a fist. What they fail to grasp is that anyone aghast at this alien entertainment would already have stepped out into the sunshine – those who remained were actually interested in Euro 2008, not sat around longing for John Terry’s bulging veins.

On the first day, the ITV boys got stuck in to Portugal v Turkey. After some perfunctory discussion of how Cristiano Ronaldo and Colin Kazim-Richards might perform, they turned to the important stuff: rumours of Ronaldo leaving Manchester United. And on they went. And on. What did Gary Neville think? He didn’t know. Once the game was out of the way, they grabbed a post-match interview with Kazim-Richards – and asked him whether Ronaldo was leaving Manchester United. Surprisingly, he didn’t know either. Do ITV suspect that all foreigners – even those born in Leytonstone – share their secrets, just like they all speak English when our backs are turned?

When coaches chose to leave England-based stars on the bench, commentators and pundits responded with something close to outrage. Spain were the main offenders, so when Cesc Fábregas stepped up to take the crucial penalty in their quarter-final shoot-out, Motson was beside himself with excitement. “An Arsenal player!” he screamed, like he’d just heard his tiny Cotswold village mentioned on the news. But if the BBC was bad – and it was – it had nothing on ITV, whose analysis of the astonishing Holland v Italy game consisted of a prerecorded interview with Fabio Capello, “the man who must ensure England don’t miss out next time a major tournament comes around”. Throughout, they seemed painfully embarrassed they couldn’t show Coronation Street.

This insularity is growing, as the Premier League becomes ever more sure of itself. We used to watch international games and learn that so-and-so “plays his club football for KS Vllaznia in the Albanian League”. There’s less of this now, many players’ brief stints in England effectively obliterating the rest of their career. Spent six unhappy months in Lancashire, then nine years scoring hatfuls in Baden-Württemberg? Stuttgart can sod off – you’re “an ex-Blackburn Rovers player”. Nothing counts but “the greatest league in the world”. Andy Townsend, what are your thoughts on David Villa? “I’ll tell you what – he’d be a great addition to the Premiership.” Yes, Andy, he probably would.

Croatia faced Austria, and a bemused Slaven Bilic was asked whether there was more expectation for his team “because of how they qualified”. The hubris is amusing, the undertone less so: as Bilic’s side kicked off against Germany, ITV described the teams as “two of England’s greatest enemies, ancient and modern”, which is inappropriate however you take it. “Remember that this is the day the office would have closed early,” snarled the commentary. “This could have been Germany-England.” The fact that it couldn’t (the seedings would have altered significantly) didn’t seem to matter much. Stubborn bitterness, with a refusal to learn from your mistakes, is the English way.

The certifiable David Pleat may inhabit a wibbly-wobbly world of his own, but it’s a measure of ITV’s decline that he’s now the best thing about their football coverage, endlessly (if inadvertently) amusing, and the closest thing they have to a competent analyst. Never mind those legendary mispronunciations of anything foreign – as if he’s memorised the teamsheet from an old copy of Pro Evolution Soccer – Pleat was the only pundit who seemed unfazed by England’s absence. True, as Libor Sionko skipped past a Portugal defender, he muttered “brilliant play – he was at Glasgow Rangers” (presumably catering to the four or five Scottish fans with the same frustrated sense of entitlement), but when Peter Drury called Simone Perrotta “the first World Cup winner to have been born in Ashton-Under-Lyne”, and Pleat chipped in drily with “yes, I thought you’d mention that”, he was the smartest guy in the room. And it was later pointed out that Geoff Hurst was born there, too.

The first quarter-final was billed, inevitably, as “Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal against Michael Ballack’s Germany” – a “huge personal duel” let down slightly by the fact that they were playing in completely different areas of the pitch – and Clive Tyldesley duly introduced the teams as “England’s nemesis versus England’s nemesis”. By half-time in what turned out to be a gripping game, with Pleat waxing lyrical on a Chelsea-bound Portugal full-back called “Boss Swinger”, Clive was miles away, babbling proudly about how only England’s qualifying group had provided two quarter-finalists (neither on the pitch at the time). “Perhaps England were in the group of death after all,” he sighed wistfully, somehow forgetting the role in non-qualification caused by failures to beat Israel and Macedonia.

There was more of this revisionism the next day, as Croatia faced Turkey: since “England’s conquerors” must obviously be the best (or luckiest) team in the world, the only way to make sense of their exit was to remark: “For Turkey, it was a night to match Liverpool’s great comeback in Istanbul.” Because, you see, not only are most viewers unwilling to watch foreigners play without constant reference to the England team, they stare blankly at high sporting drama until it’s compared to another high sporting drama, one involving English people.

When no home nation qualified for the 1984 European Championship, no British TV channel bothered to show it. Unthinkable in 2008, with football established as prime-time family entertainment – so what’s the problem? Do they not trust the product, do they not trust the viewers, or are these people actually as crass and ignorant as they seem? Listen to them: “Euro 2008 has given us an exciting first week,” said Steve Rider, “but the biggest story has been Phil Scolari taking over as Chelsea boss.” Like disorientated tourists, wandering the streets in search of a bar called the Winston Churchill, moaning that they can’t find chips.

From WSC 258 August 2008