I’m an anxious England fan today. In common with my countrymen everywhere, I don’t have any real hope that England are going to accomplish anything meaningful in this year’s UEFA Euro 2012 tournament, but also in common with patriotic fans from every country, we live in hope that our disarrayed team may yet pull something out of the bag.
In the UK, the two main terrestrial TV broadcasters are the holy and revered BBC, and also commercial upstart ITV. They are sharing the Euro games according to a formula I don’t really understand. Today it’s ITV’s turn to show the crucial opening encounter between England and France, the game of the group and a tie which will inevitably set the tone for England’s campaign.
Now, this isn’t a footy blog and I won’t be writing a daily rant about all things soccer. But I must draw your attention to the competing footy programmes’ respective anchor men. On the Beeb, we have England hero, potato crisp advertiser and all round nice guy Gary Lineker. For those readers unfamiliar with Association Football (my American readers should be aware that, with the greatest respect for your fine nation and my many friends there, I am probably looking in your direction at this point), Mr Lineker is an England hero. A talented goal poacher, he played in probably the best England international team of the modern era under the late great Bobby Robson, where the guys were pipped in the semi final of the World Cup but came away from the tournament with a great deal of kudos and respect. The same Gary Lineker was on the pitch playing with a fractured arm in a previous World Cup in Mexico, when Argentina’s Diego Maradona broke English hearts with a handballed goal. As you may recall, the referee didn’t see this illegal move, and Maradona later described his effort as “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”).
Video evidence suggests that neither Maradona’s head nor God’s hand were involved. To rub salt into the wounds, Maradona followed this illegitimate goal with perhaps the finest legitimate goal ever seen in international football. Lineker also popped a good goal in for England near the end of the game, but could not get another to level the score. He shook Maradona’s hand afterwards. Many years later he interviewed Maradona for a BBC football magazine programme. He said to Diego cheerfully, “Personally I blame the referee and the linesman, if that counts”. Then he told him that the second Maradona strike was the only time in his career when he felt like applauding an opponent’s goal. Maradona laughed stupidly and shook Lineker’s hand. Lineker was gracious and unbowed. Unbooked in his professional career, this is an English superstar and a man with lucid dignity who can hold his head high.
Meanwhile, ITV have Adrian Chiles. Good old Ade used to be a BBC reporter on Radio 5 Live, and has covered the world’s most prestigious sporting events as a co-anchor to Gary Lineker, before apparently having some kind of falling out with the BBC and defecting to an relatively unsuccessful ITV morning programme with Christine Bleakley. (I have no insider knowledge of what went on here — but one day Chiles seemed simply to have left the BBC. Who knows what goes on in these contractual discussions). Unabashed, Chiles is now ITV’s leading sport’s presenter and apparently commands a salary worth millions over several years. Chiles is a man-of-the-people midlander, an iconic West Bromwich Albion supporter, and is clearly positioned as such when taking the lead in ITV’s footy coverage.
Unfortunately, Chiles and his team of pundits (tonight featuring Patrick Vieira for the French point of view, and England also-ran Gareth Southgate) are sitting in an apparently un-soundproofed studio which seems to wobble slightly in the breeze. And that’s just the breeze coming from the pundits’ mouths. Watching the Ireland game the other night with Roy Keane, one prayed for the long-awaited Keane-Vieira punch-up to enliven proceedings (Keane and Vieira have had a fractious relationship over the years — when they were both playing in an Arsenal v Manchester United game in 2006, trouble broke out in the Highbury tunnel and there have been a variety of feuds at other times, notably including Keane’s public criticism of Vieira for choosing to play internationally for France instead of his birthplace, Senegal).
But Adrian kept it all in check in both the Ireland and England games, perhaps hypnotising his panel of experts with some top notch inane Brummie drivel (“…how inconvenient of the French to go and equalise…”, “…good to see England players with their peckers up” etc). This rainy Monday evening, excited by the prospect of some proper competitive football, on free-to-air TV and involving England, I rushed home to discover Chiles in action. Fortunately England held a skilled and troublesome French side at bay resulting in a sporting and well-contested one-one draw. Just as well. Can you imagine having to listen to this stuff while your side are losing?
Now, it’s not personal. One suspects Mr Chiles would be an entertaining companion if watching this on the big screen at your local hostelry. As it happens, what I read about Mr Chiles suggests that he’s a committed charity fund raiser, has a high quality university degree, and plays several musical instruments to a very good standard. So let’s not judge a book by its cover, OK?
But do you really want your Everyman mate on the telly? I have my doubts. Come on BBC — bid for all the games next time, for all our sakes. In the meantime Mr Chiles, with the greatest respect, can you put a football sock in it please? And maybe the shin protector, too.