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On the Confederations’ Cup, underdogs and the BBC pundits’ couch

2nd July, 2013
The BBC's top analytical dogs

The BBC’s top analytical dogs

While this blog, as a general rule, approaches international tournaments with a firm desire to support the underdog, it is one of those seldom avoidable truths that the further one gets into a tournament the dogs are increasingly less of the traditionally under and more of the typically top variety. Such was the case with the recent Confederations’ Cup, where come the semi-finals Italy could really only be considered the underdogs by virtue of facing a Spain team whose recent exploits need not be recounted here, and we were left with a final featuring the aforementioned Spanish against a Brazilian team who, despite their renunciation of the possession game in recent decades, have proved that a preference for more prosaic talents in many areas of the pitch hasn’t dulled their capacity to win.

Though Tahiti may have delighted many with their verve, which rewarded them with a richly deserved goal, they were unfortunately unlikely to have added to their tally of no points regardless of the circumstances. This left it up to the likes of Nigeria, Japan, Mexico, and, to a lesser extent perhaps, Uruguay to supply the surprises. In the event, the most exciting and skilful of those teams left with the same points total as Tahiti, but one was left feeling that if Japan had woken up a bit earlier against Brazil, and if Yoshida Maya had just put the ball out for a corner when he had the chance to against Italy, things could have been so different.

Yet the semi-finals served up the teams the sensible neutral observer would probably have expected to see there. And as the tournament began to lose a little of its lustre for those of us who would have liked to see a Japan or a Nigeria doing battle for the big prize, there was a curious parallel taking place in the studios of the BBC, who were providing coverage for the tournament in the United Kingdom.

Regular watchers of Match of the Day, which on Saturday nights during the English league season offers highlights of top flight matches, will be aware of the generally less than stellar standard of football punditry on the BBC. And at the start the corporation suggested that they would be scraping the same old mouldy barrel for pundits, with the presence of the likes of Robbie Savage and John Hartson. Mr Savage gives the impression of being a likeable person, but does belong to that surprisingly long list of commentators who seem unable to distil any of their long experience of playing football at a high level for the benefit of those of us at home who haven’t.

Mr Hartson on the other hand, while guilty of spouting the same litany of platitudes as Mr Savage (do phrases such as ‘he just wanted it more’ really constitute the apex of astute tactical analysis?), also came across as a curmudgeon who hadn’t even bothered to pay sufficient attention to the name of the tournament he was commenting on when he asserted that a team of Tahiti’s limited prowess didn’t really deserve to be at the tournament. Perhaps someone should have explained to Mr Hartson that the Confederations’ Cup is for nations that are champions of their respective confederations, and therefore Tahiti had as much right to be there as any of the other contestants, bar Italy, who qualified as European runners-up as Euro 2012 winners Spain were already there as the world champions, and Brazil, who qualified as hosts and didn’t even get as far as Italy in South America’s corresponding tournament. After that the fact that Mr Hartson also is clearly a card-carrying member of the Chris Waddle ‘pelanty’ school of broadcasters seems almost incidental, although watching Robbie Savage try to keep a straight face each time his colleague uttered the word ‘pelanty’ when they were on screen together did have a certain charm.

Efan Ekoku: apparently not fit to share a couch with Alan Hansen

Efan Ekoku: apparently not fit to share a couch with Alan Hansen

But enough of Messers Hartson and Savage. Peter Odemwingie acquitted himself fairly well, but the true stars of the show were Efan Ekoku and Pat Nevin. Erudite, articulate and insightful, the two men were far and away the best analysts at work for the BBC in this tournament. It was a curious sensation to listen to pundits who didn’t just provide a narrative voice for the action on screen, but who were capable of offering ideas, and who had clearly done a bit of research before the matches to find out some of the history behind managers’ recent selections.

Of course, like the unfancied but often enterprising nations, Messers Ekoku and Nevin found themselves making the journey back home come the semi-finals, where the big guns and Match of the Day regulars of Hansen and Shearer were brought back, alongside host Gary Lineker in an unholy threeness of complacency. Only Mark Lawrenson, who clearly has seniority to Shearer in the smugness stakes, was missing, plying as he was his curious brand of miserabilism from the stadia in Brazil. If Mr Lawrenson is so unhappy to be sent on such assignments, this blog would like to know where it can send its CV.

For the first semi-final, between Brazil and Uruguay, Mr Hansen was joined on the couch by the most anodyne of commentators, Kevin Kilbane, who had previously formed part of the BBC’s Brazil-based team, but had presumably been sent home for the knock-out rounds in order to accommodate Mr Lawrenson. Mr Kilbane seems an eminently more affable figure than the big three, but this blog couldn’t help but wonder if he had been brought in simply because Mr Shearer had had a prior engagement that night and Mr Hansen couldn’t bear the thought of having to share the studio with someone as well-prepared as Mr Ekoku or Mr Nevin. Mr Kilbane gives the impression of being the sort of person who would give you the shirt of his back without a second’s thought, but alas he belongs very much to the descriptivist school of football punditry.

Perhaps there is a joy to be had in seeing the likes of Messers Hansen and Lawrenson embarrass themselves with their lack of knowledge and unwillingness to besmirch their reputations for off-the-cuff analysis by conducting anything as unbefitting as research. Perhaps there’s something almost admirable about such an unabashed commitment to ignorance. It was hard not to believe that neither had seen Brazil play for years, the way both would spout particularly well-worn clichés about the fragility of Brazilian defences, despite the fact that for at least the past twenty years Brazilian teams have been built on a solid defensive spine from the goal to the centre of defence and the centre of midfield and that the current coach, with whom they won the World Cup in 2002, is well-known for the defensive discipline of his sides.

Facts? Figures? Not for me, old chum!

Facts? Figures? Not for me, old chum!

There was a chuckle to be had in listening to Mr Hansen suggest that Tottenham would do well to avoid signing the vastly overrated Paulinho, with whom the club had been linked, because the midfielder clearly wasn’t up to much, only for the Brazilian to respond that very evening with an assist and a goal against Uruguay and later go on to find himself amongst the candidates for the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player.

There was greater delight in watching Mr Hansen squirm at half time of the final, when Brazil were up by two goals to nil against Spain, after Mr Hansen had spent much of the fore-match coverage disparaging the Brazilians and suggesting that the Spaniards had far too much ‘quality’. This blog didn’t bother watching his post-match contributions, and so doesn’t know what the great man had to say. At least Gianluca Vialli was present in the studio, meaning that there was at least one commentator with a genuine interest in the tournament present—and it should come as no surprise that he was the only one who successfully predicted that Spain’s extra-time exertions against Italy would undermine their attempts to halt an unspectacular but potentially efficient Brazilian team that had been rapidly gaining momentum.

But, to bring this article back to its beginning, while cheering on the underdogs in international football can be fun, there is no denying that the favourites typically do play rather good football and can often boast some of the world’s best players. Think what you will about Spain and Brazil, they can’t be accused of producing incompetent footballers. When we see teams like Japan and Nigeria perform well, as they did in patches in Brazil, one is entitled to think that soon those squads too, with a bit of experience and two or three more players of the highest calibre, will be of able to speak of themselves alongside the perennial favourites such as Brazil, Spain, Italy and Germany because they will have reached that level of on-field accomplishment.

Golden Ball candidate and charlatan Paulinho learns that Mr Hansen's perspicacious insight has cost him the award

Semi-final matchwinner and charlatan Paulinho learns that Mr Hansen’s perspicacious insight has cost him the Golden Ball award

With pundits however, it seems that there is no sense that the chosen few feel any need to prove that they are the men (and they are always men, aren’t they?) for the big occasion. Pat Nevin occasionally gets shunted out to Match of the Day 2, the Sunday evening junior sibling to the Saturday evening behemoth, and Efan Ekoku does crop up here and there on other channels as a co-commentator, but the low consideration in which Britain’s national broadcaster holds these two pundits suggests that anything approaching a meritocracy in the analysis department is a ways off.

An own goal, to put it in football parlance, for the BBC, but alas it is the better pundits—and we viewers—who have to pay the pelanty.

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