Football punditry can be a detestable sham. The BBC gave an ominous reminder of that during their Euro 2020 preview show on Thursday, when Gary Lineker said Micah Richards knew a lot about North Macedonia and everyone in the studio, including Richards, fell about laughing. Apparently the notion that a highly paid analyst might swot up on one of the tournament’s lesser known teams was top banter.
But that was a lone outrage in a tolerable production and, in fairness, it is both the privilege and the burden of the national broadcaster that it must try to cater to everyone’s taste. Including people who read the Sun, and there are still plenty of those three years after the organ masterfully encapsulated the decline of civilisation by beginning its newsflash on the shirt worn by Cesc Fàbregas in his first appearance on the panel of the Beeb, who had snapped him up after his surprise omission from Spain’s World Cup squad, with: “Cesc Fabregas’ World Cup nightmare continued as his punditry outfit was panned by fans [on social media].”
Well, Fàbregas was back on Friday for the BBC’s coverage of the first match of Euro 2020, and this time his shirt was unremarkable. Happy now, tweeting wimps? Great.
Fàbregas was joined by Alan Shearer, Rio Ferdinand and presenter Lineker. Discussions were sober, measured, well informed. They picked out various players to watch from Italy and Turkey, helpfully describing Jorginho’s passing qualities and Caglar Soyuncu’s defensive strengths and weaknesses. This is the stuff that professional ex-professionals do best.
Fàbregas identified Hakan Calhanoglu as a player to watch, a free radical in increasingly stencilled teams. “Football has gone a little bit robotic,” he ventured. “A lot of coaches nowadays … they programme you.” Ferdinand liked the point so much that he immediately said the same thing.
There was agreeable use of technology in the way the BBC presented the team lineups before kick-off, with the colourful rotoscoping of players proving that art moves on, but A-ha’s videos have not been forgotten. For kick-off Lineker handed over to the men in the gantry in Rome. Guy Mowbray set the scene: “Jermaine Jenas is bristling with excitement to be alongside me,” he announced. “I’ve waited a long time for this, Guy,” admitted Jenas. The heat was on.
Italy were so dominant from kick-off that after only 26 minutes Mowbray suggested: “We’re getting to the stage where Italy will be starting to rue not making the most of their obvious advantage.”
In general Mowbray is a solid, generous commentator, happy to serve as an unobtrusive guide to the action rather than attempt to steal the show. Even when he reacted to a run by Leonardo Spinozzola by saying: “He went too far and not far enough all at once,” Mowbray was accurate.
In Jenas he has a sideman of similar mind, an analyst not too proud to state the obvious, nor too dim to describe the complex. They make for perfectly nice company. And they keep each other in line. When Mowbray said one of Italy’s players “just lives up the road and, being in Rome, it will be a straight road”, Jenas issued a mild rebuke. “That was cheap,” he chided.
Mowbray may still have been thinking about that in the 35th minute when he yelped: “Let the Italian warning bells ring!” when the home team’s goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, was forced into an awkward clearance. He may even have been thinking about it as some players exchanged angry looks after the referee blew for half-time. “There’s just a little bit of overblown passion, shall we say, before the players leave the field,” he reflected.
During the break the men in the studio summarised proceedings without fuss. “Tactically Italy have got the game sewn up, they just need to find that cutting edge,” said Ferdinand, who was in no-nonsense mood. When Lineker tried to riff on the remote control car that had delivered the ball to the centre circle before half-time, Ferdinand just said: “Sponsorship.”
It was time to cut to Robbie Savage, reporting from near the Wales training camp in Azerbaijan. “It was the furthest place we could find to send you,” quipped Lineker. Savage let that slide. His sights were on another target. If there had been little to argue about with the BBC’s coverage except for a lack of oomph, Savage seemed determined to address that.
“If Boris Johnson is watching, Wales are in this tournament,” he shot, offended, if not surprised, by the prime minister’s lack of attention to detail. “Little old Wales again. I think Boris should realise England got knocked out against Iceland in the Euros, and Wales got to the semi-finals, but hey-ho.”
Soon after play resumed in the second half, Italy made a mess of a short corner. “I’m trying to see Roberto Mancini’s reaction to that,” revealed Mowbray before blurting: “Oh, the jacket’s off!” Ten minutes later another Italian move broke down but Mowbray’s excitement was rising. “The tie will be off next, the sleeves will be up!” he jibbered.
Meanwhile, Jenas was becoming irritated by Turkey playing like chickens. “It’s things like that they need to stop!” he complained when a midfielder played a pass backwards rather than forwards.
When Italy finally opened the scoring, there was relief all round that their dominance had been rewarded. But Mowbray had sympathy for Merih Demiral, who had unintentionally diverted the ball into his own goal with his chest, in effect being punished for his honed physique. “That’s the problem with having that solid piece of muscle,” said Mowbray. “The ball bounces off it hard. I’d have been all right.”
Soon Italy added another goal, and suddenly Mowbray started to speak like a telegram. “Immobile in for two,” he trilled. “Turkey now in trouble.”
Ultimately Italy made a more spectacular start to the tournament than the BBC but both were encouraging. Fàbregas said he hopes Italy’s approach inspires others. “It shows when you go for it and you have quality, you win games,” he said. Many will hope the BBC can continue keeping their heads once England get going.