When it comes to football, the BBC has come in for a considerable amount of stick in recent years. That Alan Shearer is actually paid (considerable) money to mumble his banalities once a week is cause for debate. That Alan Hansen gets to sit back, smugly, and pour condescension over more junior [junior? that was Pat bloody Nevin the other night!] pundits who dare to make a valid point with which he disagrees, is cause for irritation. Then there’s the highlight/punditry ratio, how much football do we actually see on MOTD 1&2? Very little, although we do get to see contentious decisions replayed>replayed>replayed and we get to see Coli….. Chappers chumming his way into our saddened hearts and frustrated minds.
But this is not a whinge, it is mere context. The BBC’s football output does not start and finish with MOTD.
Over the last 18 months the World Service has broadcast five documentaries about world football that have provided as much insight and intrigue as, we are told, does the soap opera of Premier League football. What’s more, while our weekly PL fix is: broadcast once; cut up into snippets for club-specific use on the internet; and then hidden away for future profit, these five documentaries remain intact, whole, and still available in the World Service Documentary Archive for all to try – right here.
First broadcast on the 1st of June 2011, David Goldblatt’s ‘FIFA: Football, Power & Politics’ exposé is probably the most well known of these documentaries and does pretty much what you would expect Goldblatt to do. Running through the history of FIFA, those who run it and to what ends, he highlights just some of the issues that brought about FIFA’s meltdown around the time of awarding the 2022 World Cup to that bastion of football, Qatar.
In September of the same year, in ‘Assignment: Rangers v Celtic’ Rob Walker illustrates Glaswegian rivalries and how the Scottish government intends to tackle the tensions that had (at the time) escalated to a new level with parcel bombs. It’s one thing to skirt around the thorny issue of sectarianism and to talk of political and religious compromise but the stand-out, if alarming, moments of this piece are the disturbingly frank vox pops from fans of both clubs. Glancing at the iPod as the episode comes to an end, you wonder how much ire the title of the documentary caused on one side of Glasgow, simply by not being the first club listed.
Just a week later ‘Assignment: Supporting Fenerbahce’ was added to the canon. Tim Mansel spends half an hour explaining the club’s origins, fanbase and how it finds itself at the centre of match fixing allegations while the club president sits in jail without charge. Mansel speaks to fans and introduces boisterous audio of male Fenerbahce fans gathered outside the stadium during two games from which they are banned but that women and children under 12 are allowed into for free.
Not being one of Europe’s superpower leagues, Bulgaria doesn't get too much attention in the UK. But, in ‘Bulgaria’s Deadly Game', first broadcast in August 2012, Margot Dunne explores how corruption, organised crime, hooliganism, intimidation and murder have taken over Bulgaria’s professional league and devastated both attendances and the integrity of the clubs. Imagine Joe Hart being softened (beaten) up before a game and on the day of the game being offered money to lose it ... Dunne speaks to Bulgaria's young goalkeeping equivalent about just that.
Most recently, last week, Farayi Mungazi fronts ‘Pity The Poor Soccer Stars’ and interviews African football protégés who burnt brightly and briefly before frittering away their riches. Mungazi touches on exploitation, the wastefulness of youth, neglect by major foreign clubs and the lack of advice available to the continent’s poor when embarking on a career that sees them elevated, swiftly, from poverty to the super rich and being unable to deal with it.
OK, these documentaries may not be about Lionel Messi and may not appeal to the masses but they do show the BBC can produce thought-provoking and eye-opening football content without paying ex-pros exhorbitant amounts of money to, essentially, spout pub-banter to an audience of millions. All of these pieces are worthy of your ears, many of them contextualising football in wider culture and society in a way that MOTD never even seeks to.
Episodes: Documentary Archive
Pity The Poor Soccer Stars. 15th January 2013
Bulgaria’s Deadly Game. 23rd August 2012
Assignment – Supporting Fenerbahce. 29th September 2011
Assignment – Rangers v Celtic. 22nd September 2011
FIFA – Football, Power and Politics. 1st June 2011
Read more from Damon at the truly sublime Real FA Cup.