World Cup balls

It’s been a bad World Cup for England – even worse for punditry.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Culture

It’s not been a good World Cup for England. Standard. It’s not been great for Spain, Italy or the Asian Confederation, either. But, above all, it’s been a dismal tournament for punditry. From the studio experts to the co-commentators, the TV pundits have woefully underperformed. Or to put it in Ronglish: ‘Tell you what, Clive, I’ve known a lot of bad pundits in my time but this lot just might be the worst ever in world football.’

The first problem with punditry is that our expectations are now so much higher. Sky has raised the punditry bar by providing intelligent tactical insight – complete with animated gizmos – rather than the matey golf club banter that MOTD lazily serves up. The days of Mick Channon or Kevin Keegan gibbering witlessly, mispronouncing funny foreign names and perpetuating crude national stereotypes (ruthless Teutonic efficiency, industrious Orientals, happy-go-lucky Africans, etc) are a thing of the past. Or at least they ought to be. While the art of punditry has evolved, the standard of expert analysis at this tournament has been positively prehistoric.

A second problem confronting pundits is that their mishaps now go viral via Twitter within minutes. Any faux pas will immediately result in instant global ridicule. Social media is an unforgiving place for live broadcasters. And heaven forbid if a hapless pundit says anything verboten, as there’s no shortage of thin-skinned offence-seekers ready to complain. Mark Lawrenson, for example, caused a minor Twitterstorm during the Argentina v Switzerland match. When Switzerland’s Josip Drmić shot tamely when through on goal, Lawrenson’s acerbic response was ‘should’ve put a skirt on’. Inevitably, the easily offended contingent on Twitter – a shrill and vocal minority – were outraged. ‘Don’t just get angry on here about Lawrenson’s unacceptable casual sexism’, fumed an irate tweeter who urged people to phone the BBC complaints department. One hundred and fifty four people reportedly rang to complain, prompting a contrite Beeb spokesperson to say: ‘The remark was inappropriate and we apologise for any offence caused.’ Sure, Lawro’s comments were ill-judged, but the frothing reaction shows just what an oversensitive grass-thy-neighbour society we’re becoming.

As I said, we thought that the days of foreign players having their names mangled or being referred to as ‘the big lad up front’ were over. Far from it. First there was Clive Tyldesley explaining that Iranian players display their ‘Christian names’ on their shirts. Then there were the repeated hamfisted attempts to pronounce Greek surnames. But contender for gaffe of the tournament belongs to Glenn Hoddle, who said ‘Al Jazeera’ when he meant to say ‘Algeria’. Twitter, as one might expect, went into a feeding frenzy. Hoddle was trending, and not in a hipster haircut way. Gags about news agencies competing in football tournaments whizzed around the Twittersphere. Even Al Jazeera’s official Twitter account joined in the fun, tweeting: ‘Just for the record… @AlJazeera is a media network and not a country; #Algeria on the other hand is a country.’

It isn’t just what pundits say that leaves them open to rebuke – there’s the way they say it, too. Phil Neville, a commentary box novice, was ruthlessly monstered on Twitter for his soporific and monotone delivery. Comedian Chris Addison tweeted: ‘Phil Neville. If a Wild Bean Cafe pasty could talk.’ Four hundred and forty five people phoned the BBC to complain about Neville’s co-commentary style, while a 60-year-old radiator salesman also called Phil Neville received thousands of abusive messages directed at his Twitter handle @philneville. To his credit, the real Neville, former Manchester United and Everton player, took the abuse in good humour, quipping: ‘It was my first live gig and I’m just glad I helped everybody sleep back home.’

Slips of the tongue – or Colemanballs, as they’re known in the trade – are inevitable in live broadcasting. Even the most experienced commentator will trip over his words or say something unintentionally hilarious. It’s an occupational hazard. What is less excusable is the lamentable standard of the studio analysis. Both ITV and BBC have opted for big-name pundits drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of ex-footballers. I’m not against former players occupying the punditry sofa. There are plenty of ex-pros, such as Pat Nevin, Stan Collymore and Gary Neville, who have successfully made the transition from playing to punditry. However, it doesn’t follow that being a great player equates to being a good pundit. The first principle of punditry is, ‘Tell us something we don’t know’. And that’s where so much of the World Cup analysis falls down. There’s no insight, no illuminating light shone on why a particular tactic or formation is or isn’t working.

At one end of the spectrum there are the ranters like Robbie Savage and Ian Wright, who state the bleeding obvious in an overexcited and entertaining way (as opposed to Alan Shearer, who does the same thing in a dull way). Alongside the ranters are the destroyers. Roy Keane’s absence from the World Cup stage leaves a gaping hole on the ITV panel for the pundit-assassin. Keane is to post-match analysis what Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo character is to the television series Fargo. Like the sociopath Malvo, Keano is a brooding, menacing presence on the punditry sofa, whose job is to deliver brutal and eviscerating appraisals of players who fail to meet his exacting standards (that is, 99 per cent of all professional footballers).

At the other end of the spectrum are those pundits who have nothing insightful to say but are quite nice to look at. Take Fabio Cannavaro for example. What exactly does he bring to the party? Nothing much in terms of incisive analysis. I suspect he was employed as eye candy for the ladies. The same applies to Thierry Henry. He’s cool, well-dressed, good looking and has a sexy French accent. My female colleagues were drooling over his moody Gallic schtick. The hipster cardigan he wore during England v Italy game sent ripples of excitement across the Twittersphere. But what insight did he offer? Zilch. Thierry was va-va-vacuous.

This tournament has been a fascinating moment in the evolution of football tactics. Spanish tiki-taka, which has dominated world football in recent years, appears to have been superseded by methods based less on patient keep-ball than on lightning-fast counter-attacks. We’ve also seen the resurgence of the hitherto extinct 3-5-2 formation. It ought to be tactical manna from heaven for the TV pundits. But, with a few honourable exceptions, notably Danny Murphy and Gordon Strachan, most of the expert analysis has been as pedestrian as the England midfield. So, quit worrying about whether tiki-taka is dead – it’s television punditry which is in urgent need of resuscitation.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Culture


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