In the summer of 2006 I was unemployed. This was a bad thing in many ways, not least because it almost dissolved my always ephemeral self-confidence and dwindled my material assets to little more than a Gibson SG electric guitar.
However, my lack of engagement did mean I was free to savour almost every last kick of that year’s World Cup, to be held in Germany. 64 matches over the course of June and July…I could ask for little more.
I’m still not entirely sure when my obsession with football began; although my paternal grandfather was a keen fan of football, rugby and cricket, my father isn’t sporting at all, and neither was my mother. So, unencumbered by the institutionalism that so many children of sporting fanatics experience, I didn’t take an interest in any team games until I was nearly ten years old.
When I try to put my finger on when I became hopelessly devoted to football, several incidents spring to mind, although they all seem to contradict one another. I remember my father, who was a professional press photographer at the time, coming home one afternoon with a programme from a Rangers game; the centre spread poster was Ray Wilkins, suggesting the match took place some time in 1989; quite probably it was from Wilkins’ last game for the Gers, which would have been towards the end of the year. As a primary school pupil, as an adult, I wasn’t overly popular with my peers, and it would be accurate to say I experienced a certain amount of bullying. The unreliable narrator of my memory suggests I took the programme into school to show the people who teased me in order to ameliorate them somewhat. I seem to recall Gerald (a drug addict last I heard) asking if he could have it, to which I told him no, it was my dad’s.
And then…equally as vivid is the memory of my classmates losing the plastic football that they used for lunch and interval kickabouts in the playground, and the teacher arranging a collection for a new ball, with the proviso that if you didn’t pay for it, you wouldn’t be allowed to play. In my mind, I didn’t play football at all before this decision, and only paid the 20 pence to join in, after feeling aggrieved at the teacher’s arbitration, for some reason.
Nevertheless, for most of the past 21 years, I have had an unhealthy fixation with what is sometimes inaccurately described as the beautiful game. After the plastic ball incident, I took up playing the game, and aside from an enforced four year break in my teens when I didn’t know anyone else that played, I’ve been running and kicking and occasionally heading a football for a couple of hours ever since.
As a player, I’ve never amounted to much. Left-footed, my strengths included a deceptive turn of pace, and such disparate skills such as being a terrific slide-tackler and being quite good at over-head scissor kicks. Unfortunately as I can’t do much else, I was never going to trouble the professionals, although I’ve played against some very good semi-pros and managed not to completely embarrass myself.
But my true position in the world of football has always been as spectator. I don’t get to see as many games as I’d like, mainly due to cost issues in today’s world of SKY TV and £150,000 a week players (although, to be honest there aren’t many of them in Govan), so I take the chance to take in as many televised games as I can. These consist mainly the two main European club competitions and two of the world’s biggest international tournaments, the World Cup and the European Championships, half two years apart in four year cycles.
So, at 5pm on the 9th June 2006, I sat down in front of the television, giddy with excitement and looking forward to seeing an Oktoberfest of fußball.
Within 90 minutes I was raging. And here’s why; ask any scientist, architect, engineer or so forth if they think comment or criticism on their field of expertise should be passed by journalists with a background in English literature & language and only a layman’s understanding of the subject they’re analysing? Most would say no I’d wager. And yet, in football (and music, and to a certain extent politics), the exposition and attempted explanation of what is occurring in front of us comes from enthusiastic amateurs.
And quite often they get things wrong. I wasn’t aware that the media was fallible until I’d reached a ridiculously ripe age, and then one day I found myself railing against what I was being told was the case, when I damn well knew it wasn’t. In a way this was liberating, to know that journalists and broadcaster weren’t always right (and sometimes weren’t even within a country mile of the ballpark), but sometimes it’s been nothing but a pain.
I do not, and cannot, claim to be an expert in any field. However, after 30 years of existence, of primary, secondary and tertiary education, having read countless books, newspapers, articles, websites and so on in an attempt to broaden my mind, I feel I am qualified to point out when television football commentators are talking shite, and call them out on it.
Yes, this is a minor quibble in the grander design of life’s rich pageant, but what is the point of a commentator who instead of imparting analysis, information, interpretation and sage comment makes terrible jokes and implies all foreigners are cheats? I have found over the last twenty years or so an increasing seam of lazy, xenophobic. smug and self-congratulatory claptrap creep into the verbiage of commentators. This mainly affects the ITV and Five employees, although the BBC can be equally culpable.
I’ll give you the example that if you’ve read this far, you deserve. During one of Poland’s games, a commentator made note that their centre-half Jacek Bąk’s name was pronounced ‘Bonk’, and appended an audible snigger. Really? Is this what we expect of our broadcast media in the 21st century? Chortling into their sleeves because a particular culture is different to ours? Fuck that.
So, as I started watching the games, and subjecting myself to a barrage of shit from Tyldesley, Drury, Pearce and their mildly less brain-addled former professional footballer summariser colleagues, I came to the conclusion I was going to learn nothing about football, the countries involved, or anything in general from a broadcasting ethos that can’t see any value past Steven Gerrard’s bootlaces.
I decided to dedicate a blog entry to every single game in which I would read about the teams involved, the players, the countries, their culture, their history, and the game itself, and try to impart my findings to my…ahem…readership. I’m not sure how successful I was, given that I know only about three people that have the same level of interest in football as I do, but I enjoyed the process and what I gained from it, and I fully intend to do it again this summer, time restraints allowing. I’ve written in the past about how much I admire the Reithian principles the BBC seems to have strayed from in recent years, and with which the commercial channels have never really concerned themselves, but I reiterate how important I think it is for television to act as an educational tool, and not just the mindless goggle box it so often is.
Sadly, I see myself writing more disapproving and sanctimonious blog posts in the summer months. I actually wrote an email of complaint to the BBC after the semi-final of Euro 2008 because I felt the studio panel’s character-assassination of the German national team crossed the boundary of impartial analysis into bitter jingoism. Germany’s first game of the tournament will prove to be the acid test once again I fear.