The revolution must be televised

You're reading this so you are now part of the revolution.  Can we change the world?  Juliet Jacques thinks it's time we did.

England has a national sport within its national sport: mocking the way football is covered on national television. For good reason, too: On the BBC’s Match of the Day earlier in 2010, Alan Shearer’s notorious assertion that “we don’t really know much about Hatem Ben Arfa” (online, it takes two minutes to find that Ben Arfa, 23, is a French left winger of Tunisian stock, who has won eight caps for France and five Ligue 1 titles) made the complacency and lack of research behind much of England’s football coverage impossible to ignore. However, more internationally minded football fans have long been appallingly served by the glut of televisual discussion – despite an abundance of quality English-language writing (and film-making) on various aspects of the global game.

This summer’s World Cup highlighted the poverty of English televisual football criticism. Leaving aside ITV’s attempts at humour (which fell some way short of Fantasy Football League’s heyday), the level of insight into the games, and the teams playing, was universally low. Many of the pundits – all ex-players – relied on clichés more appropriate to the 1982 World Cup than 2010: it was the press who recognised that Joachim Löw’s German team played much more expansive, exciting football than Jupp Derwall’s early Eighties runners-up; it took the pundits an age to realise that Dunga’s Brazil team, unpopular in their homeland, were far from the samba soccer side of Zico, Socrates, Falcão et al.



Watching Spain’s succession of late 1-0 wins, I tired of these pundits relentlessly telling me how wonderful their football was, and longed for more informed debate about their tactics and how they affected the patterns of their games. I would have much rather seen a discussion between tactical historian Jonathan Wilson, a big fan of Spain’s finely honed passing and movement, and Guardian journalist Barney Ronay, who posited Spain’s often risk-averse and ‘frictionless’ style as a conclusion to FIFA’s twenty-year process of outlawing physical contact. It may well have provided more insight (and more entertainment) than the unquestioning post-Final consensus that Spain’s triumph was “a victory for football” – even if the same conclusion were eventually reached.

It is not that tactics have never been covered in a mainstream TV context, it’s that they have seldom been examined with real rigour (the words ‘Tactics Truck’ still bring those who saw Andy Townsend’s interrogation of Ugo Ehiogu to hysterics). Much discussion seems to focus on refereeing errors and, recently, the goal-line technology debate, and when the BBC’s punditry team attempted to explore the politics around the host nation, it delivered the risible line, delivered to a black South African, of “How did you feel about segregation?”

It’s unfair to over-criticise Match of the Day (or pick on Mr Shearer): for its faults, it remains immeasurably superior to ITV’s lamentable Premiership; the odd howler or cliché aside, its analysis of featured matches is usually pitched well for its audience and timeslot. But amidst the mass of football discussion on ITV, Sky and BBC, is there really no room for something aimed at the broader-minded fan, as there is in print, podcasting and blogging?

When venturing into documentary, the BBC has covered the game very well. The wonderful World Cup Stories that preceded the 2006 tournament and the Football and Fascism/Communism programmes for BBC Four are two memorable incidences of intelligent exploration of national football cultures and the relationship between the sport and politics.

So why could BBC Four not offer a magazine show that explores tactics, politics, finances and history, as well as the domestic leagues and national teams of different countries? It need not be expensive. All it would need is: a studio a regular host (perhaps James Richardson from the sorely missed Football Italia); a panel of journalists, campaigners, officials, former players and managers, writers and film-makers, changing each time in accordance with the matters at hand; a team to set the agenda and research the subjects; and the rights to the appropriate footage. (And please, no ‘Have Your Say’ section.) Everything else would be provided by an existing production team.

Having established the most appropriate outlet and the specialist requirements, how can we make it happen? The BBC does not accept unsolicited ideas of a general factual nature, as explained here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/network/public.shtml#idea. So we need to go through an independent production company, hoping to form part of the 25% of BBC programming which must, according to the Communications Act 2003, come from outside the Corporation.

This is where this article stops being a critique and becomes an appeal. The production of a television programme is a complicated process, involving a lot of people besides the creator of the original concept – and the need to prove in advance that an audience exists. The Internet gives us the power to try to realise this improvement to our football culture: we can use the comments section here, as well as the growing football blogosphere (outlined in James Dart’s recent Guardian Top 100), to demonstrate interest and evolve the concept, and social networking sites to bring it to the attention of potential production companies and contributors, and draw together the perfect team. It will be a long process: but one that can, if we will, start here and now.

What do YOU think?  Are we going off on one here?  Your comments are very welcome (we will NEVER share your mail address btw).


Juliet writes regularly for IBWM and the Guardian and can be found here and on Twitter @JulietJacques

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