Time for a Punditry Purge

Another article I wrote for The Cynical Challenge (this time on ITV and BBC’s World Cup coverage), which seems rather relevent in the wake of Stan Collymore’s (and various other media outlets) recent rebuke of Match of the Day. Sensibly, TCC censored my (sometimes) explicit musings, so consider this the “X Rated Director’s Cut”.

What do vuvuzelas, Louie Spence and getting your foreskin caught in your flies all have in common? All are significantly less painful and annoying than the World Cup coverage.

Football is a game of opinions. Watching a game of football is like reading a novel or watching a film: they are all open to interpretation. Ideally, coverage should be like a York Notes for football, offering in-depth analysis that would make even tactics blogger @Zonal_Marking purr. Instead, the World Cup coverage provided by BBC and ITV is the equivalent of having the finer nuances of The Brothers Karamazov explained by Miss South Carolina. I feel as though I’ve spent the last month being bludgeoned to death by clubs made out of chicken wire, tired clichés and human faeces.

The anchors of both stations are largely inoffensive, though Adrian Chiles’ pre USA versus England anti-America tirade was a miscalculation to say the least. It is not even the multitude of errors (most notably ITV HD opting to cut to an advertisement as Steven Gerrard opened the scoring against the USA) that riles me. Rather, it is the complete lack of intelligent discussion from the “expert” pundits.

Alan Shearer, whose hairline has receded further than a Shaolin Monks’ testes, is less insightful than a cephalopod mollusc – although Paul the psychic octopus has been particularly acute with his recent predictions. Shearer is as intelligent as his goal scoring celebration was creative and when commenting on Pele’s assertion that an African team would win the World Cup before 2000, he muttered: “I think it’s going to be longer”. Really, Alan? Are you sure?

Shearer presumably graduated from the same school of “stating the obvious” as Andy Townsend (who shares the same facial features as a bull terrier), with both offering pearls of wisdom that have included: “This is a game neither side will want to lose” and “A goal now will change the game”. Shearer’s use of droll, outdated clichés, and his lack of tactical knowledge, makes his four point haul (and subsequent relegation) as manager of Newcastle seem an achievement in retrospect, rather than the failure one might have originally considered it.

All the pundits suffer from a lack of relevant information regarding “lesser nations”. Lee Dixon, while talking about Slovakia, remarked: “We don’t know a lot about them.” Rather than do research, he was “given” the name of Slovakia captain and Napoli star Marek Hamsik, which he merely mentioned in isolation with no elaboration. The majority of the pundits’ knowledge pool is criminally limited to the Premier League, and the odd Champions League encounter (but only if an English team is involved).

What can be done to solve these deficiencies? Perhaps it’s time the BBC/ITV followed the example of the brilliant Guardian Football Weekly podcasts and employed intelligent journalists with encyclopaedic knowledge of specific leagues (from Germany’s Raphael Honigstein to La Liga aficionado Sid Lowe). The World Cup coverage has been far too Premier League (and England) centric.

However, both ITV and the BBC have tendencies to only employ ex-professional footballers, a recruitment plan that is evidently flawed. Are former footballers more suited to discussing and analysing matches than journalists? According to @Zonal_Marking: “In theory they’re more qualified, they can offer insights from personal experience, which is valuable and something mere journalists will never be able to do. But equally, they must be knowledgeable on the teams and players they’re talking about, and they must be able to express views with some level of insight.” Are Shearer, Hansen et al better equipped to discuss the Italian national team than, for example, the Guardian’s Paulo Bandini? Certainly not. Sadly, the BBC’s decision to shun James Richardson when replacing Chiles suggests a move towards greater journalist representation is still some way off.

Equally frustrating has been the lack of gusto on show. Mark Lawrenson has about as much enthusiasm for football as I have for being bukaked by the entire England football team, while Edgar Davids wears a pained expression that suggests he’s spent the afternoon being spit roasted by Ron Jeremy and Peter North. His contribution solely consists of scowling at Chiles as he slumps in his chair.

Alan Hansen is the greatest culprit when it comes to sucking the life out of a match. He reminds me of Michael Douglas in Falling Down, except rather than embarking on a killing rampage provoked by a general dissatisfaction with life, he simply simmers and makes banal and morose comments. His melancholy and dour nature has an almost lobotomising effect.

This lack of zest is particularly frustrating for @Zonal_Marking: “[the pundits have] so often sat down at half-time and said a game was boring for 15 minutes. Make it interesting, then.” Mesut Özil’s recent criticism of the England squad’s complaints of boredom could equally be levied upon the jaded punditry panel: “If you find the greatest tournament on earth boring, then you probably shouldn’t be there.”

The supporting cast and commentators aren’t much better. Clive Tyldesley’s spits out pop culture references with such regularity one could be forgiven for thinking he is sponsored by Heat Magazine. While Marcel “I love Ghana so much I shunned them and played for France instead” Desailly’s celebrations are about as entertaining as chlamydia. Emmanuel Adebayor talks with such rapidity I briefly thought I had hit fast-forward on my remote, and he was left red-faced when his mobile phone rang live on air.

There is also a worrying lack of ability to pronounce players names correctly (from Kagisho Dikgacoi to Xavi), though we were at least spared the misfortune of David Pleat, who is still trying to get his tongue around “Pascal Chimbonda”.

A large portion of ITV’s coverage rests on the (rather broad) shoulders of James Corden, whose World Cup Live show is about as much fun as being redirected to meat spin. Watching Corden is a bit like being tied down to a chair as Michael Madsen dowses you in petrol and cuts your ear off to the sound of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”. Only the soundtrack is Corden’s high pitched and irritating laugh, and you’re pleading with Madsen to take the other ear too.

Amongst this myriad of clueless pundits there are (all too few) shining lights. Successful managers Roy Hodgson and Jürgen Klinsmann have offered not only an advanced knowledge of non-Premier League players, but keen tactical observations that are unparalleled by their peers. Clarence Seedorf is a pleasant, eloquent addition, while Danny Baker was a bundle of energetic vigour in his all too brief appearance.

Hopefully the outpouring of rage and criticism aimed at misers Townsend, Shearer & co. will prompt a much needed punditry purge.

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