Friday 18 October 2019

Is the World Cup really the best live tv in the world?

Gareth Southgate waves to fans after the FIFA World Cup, Semi Final match at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Gareth Southgate waves to fans after the FIFA World Cup, Semi Final match at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow

Pat Stacey

So, then. That’s it. The dream is over.

Or maybe it’s less of a dream and more of a delusion that’s come to an end. Anyway, whatever it was, it’s done now. Football is not “coming home” after all. It’s on its way to France or Croatia instead.

All this presumes, of course, that you accept the home of football, the land where it was invented in a rough-and-ready form that would look hilariously chaotic today in the mid-19th century, really is England. The Chinese might beg to differ. They claim to have played a version of the game centuries earlier.

But that’s a matter for a different day and a different article. And besides, China didn’t make it to Russia 2018 anyway. Neither, mind you, did Ireland. But I’ll come back to that in a while.

England’s tentative belief that Gareth Southgate and his young team had a genuine chance of winning the competition for the first time since Alf Ramsey’s “wingless wonders” defeated West Germany at Wembley in 1966, rapidly mushroomed into near-certainty for some (especially ITV’s Ian Wright!) after they beat Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Alas, this belief was ruthlessly shattered on the turf of Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday night. But the reality is, this World Cup just wouldn’t have been as good without them.

The truth is, World Cups are rarely as good when the English aren’t involved. Whether you regard them as our nearest neighbours, our ancient enemies or our historical oppressors; whether you want them to lose, want them to win or couldn’t give a toss of a referee’s coin one way or the other, their hopes and expectations, their triumphs and disasters, always bring an extra element of excitement. And frequently an extra element of tragi-comedy as well.

England’s unlikely journey to the semi-finals — that quest of theirs that seemed unfeasible to even the most blinkered St George’s Cross-waving knucklehead (except ITV’s Ian Wright!) when they boarded the plane for Russia more than a month ago — was one of the things that made the tournament the most thrilling we’ve seen in decades. There were plenty of other reasons to love it, though.

Whether Sunday’s final between France and Croatia turns out to be a classic or a let-down, it won’t change the fact that this World Cup has been one hell of a white-knuckle ride, full of twists, turns, loops and last-minute reversals.

Nobody would have believed last month, before a single ball had been kicked in anger, that we’d see a semi-final stage without the involvement of Germany, Spain, Argentina, or Brazil. Nobody would have believed that some of the most heart-stopping football on show would come not from any of the tournament’s traditional heavy hitters, but from wonderful, gutsy, never-say-die Japan.

For that matter, nobody would have believed that Russia, ranked 70th in the world before the tournament started and generally regarded as one of the worst host-nation teams ever, would suddenly find surprising reserves of strength and stamina, seemingly out of nowhere, and make it all the way to the quarter-finals. Then again... nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more.

But if there’s a narcotic cloud of doubt hanging over that one, most TV, radio and newspaper journalists covering the World Cup chose to politely ignore it.

There were reasons to cheer off-field, too. The much-feared Russian hooligans didn’t show up. Whether they were warned off or whether it was a case of the being kept on the leash that many believe connects them to the Kremlin is open to question. The racism and homophobia didn’t make an appearance either, while everyone there, fans as well as journos, agrees it was one of the best-organised World Cups ever.

It was, in a word, glorious. A glittering demonstration of why football and not rugby (for all its greatness), baseball, basketball or ice hockey — and certainly not the thing the GAA laughably calls football, or that other GAA thing played with sticks — is the greatest team sport on the planet and the World Cup is greatest sporting spectacle.

It’s also — just in case you think I’ve forgotten which subject I write about — the greatest live television event on the planet. The biggest, broadest, most far-reaching, yet at the same time, most uniquely personal, communal TV experience there is (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). The Olympics don’t even come close.

Football and live television have always been perfect partners, like crackers and cheese, coffee and cream, Laurel and Hardy, Lennon and McCartney. Beaming football into living rooms the world over is what live television was born to do.

Think I’m going over the top here? Think I’m being a bit of a sentimental gobshite? Well then you probably don’t care much for football, or understand the importance of televised football to several generations.

For those of us who didn’t grow up in Britain, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Uruguay or some other place where going to a football match every week was part of the fabric of life for a huge proportion of the population, where football (and not any of the things I mentioned earlier) was the game the people loved, watched and played, television was a lifeline. Two of my earliest childhood memories are of television, one of them to do with football.

It’s extraordinary how vivid these long-ago moments are imprinted on the brain. In the first, I’m sitting on the floor, watching flickering black and white TV images of astronauts on the moon. I’m assuming it must have been the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which would make me seven years old at the time.

In the second, I’m watching different black and white images, not so flickery this time, of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, which is the first tournament I can remember clearly and was only the second World Cup to be screened live around the globe. Television, including RTE, had shown the 1962 World Cup in Chile, but only after several hours’ time delay.

The bleached-out pictures and the commentary, which sounded like it was coming from inside a huge tin can, made it feel as if this, too, was happening on the moon. It was magical and mesmerising, and it was where the insane passion began. This is the combined power of football and live television. It’s not to be underestimated.

These days, live football is always at our

fingertips. If you don’t mind spending money, you can take out a subscription to Sky Sports or BT and drown in live matches from England and Scotland. If you do mind spending money, you can stream them illegally on your computer or smartphone — but ssshhh, don’t tell anybody you heard it from me! If you don’t fancy doing either of those, you can just go down the pub and watch it.

But the World Cup is different. The World Cup belongs to all of us, and that’s what makes it special and unique. You don’t need a monthly subscription to watch it. In some countries, you don’t even need a TV licence. This, every four years, is when football

really does justify being called the people’s game.


television technology may have  changed beyond all recognition since 1970. The pictures these days are crystal clear, and in high-definition. With a big enough TV, you could almost be sitting in the stands.

The commentary is so crisp, George Hamilton and Ronnie Whelan might as well be sitting beside you on the sofa. But the core of it, the magic of it, is just what it’s always been. The World Cup is one of life’s few constants, one of the things you can depend upon, and one of the things that makes life bearable.

As regards Ireland not making it (again) this time, some bloke in a pub said to me a few weeks ago: “Ah, it’s not the same without Ireland there, is it?” Actually, you know, it is the same. It’s the World Cup and it’s live on telly, and that’s all that matters. Enjoy the final.


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