The message from the players at the World Cup has become familiar. In one voice, they are saying: the time for talking is over. How wrong they are.
Tomorrow, the real battle begins. Far from the pitch, behind the glass windows of their insulated media booths, the punishing punditry schedule kicks off. The Beeb and ITV have named their squads – now it’s all down to the individuals. The World Cup is where pundits can become legends – I have a sneaking suspicion that Martin O’Neill is still making a career as a manager largely of the back of a particularly perceptive spell at the BBC.
For readers not based in the UK, the following could get quite boring quite quickly. However, I do promise to make at least one disparaging remark about Mark Lawrenson, and if that can’t unite a global audience then I don’t know what can.
The big talking point is the last-minute defection of Adrian Chiles from BBC to ITV. Not only has he consigned the satanically-faced Jim Rosenthal back to whatever Hell he came from, but he’s due to provide the Beeb’s Gary Lineker with some genuine competition in the critical ‘anchor’ role. It’s Gary’s smarm versus Chiles’ charm. I have to say I have a particular fondness for Lineker’s combination of polish and puns, rather than the much-lauded ‘everyman’ quality that Chiles possesses. Also, I find the fact that Chiles is half-Croatian so surprising that it makes me question everything else about him.
There were some nailed-on picks. Guys who were on the plane before the qualifying campaign even began. BBC have the dour miserable trio of Hansen, Lawrenson and Shearer, whilst ITV will lean precariously on the duo of Robbie Earle and Andy Townsend. Townsend and Lawrenson will both infuriate any viewer with a memory as they attempt to erase history by talking about England as if they didn’t defect to the Republic of Ireland during their playing careers.
Hansen and Lawrenson will be delighted by the arrival on the couch of another self-confessed Liverpool fan: highlights presenter Colin Murray. The BBC will be hoping his jaunty demeanour and regional accent will make up for Chiles’ absence. For ITV, the eloquent Matt Smith takes up supporting duties, denied a central role by the badger-faced Croat’s surprise switch.
These pundits represent the spine of each respective teams. But the flair comes with the surprise appointments. Here, the two sides have matched each other almost pundit for pundit. ITV appointed an English manager known to have built his limited success upon some exorbitant transfer spending: Kevin Keegan. The BBC answered with Harry Redknapp. BBC plumped for the energetic but often incomprehensible Emmanuel Adebayor. “Touché”, responded the ITV execs, hiring their own excitable but occasionally unintelligible African, Marcel Desailly. Both sides have a former dreadlocked Dutch international: Edgar Davids is with ITV, whilst Clarence Seedorf is with BBC.
The commercial station have gone with the most surprising pick: former rugby player Francois Pienaar. Yes, that’s right, the man recently portrayed by Matt Damon will be taking his place alongside Townsend and Southgate. You can see what they were thinking: “It’s a World Cup, it’s in South Africa, and it’s football. He knows about two out of three, so it’ll be fine”.
My tip for Pundit of the Tournament? The BBC’s Roy Hodgson. Yes, he sounds like a North London cab driver, but he is an intelligent, articulate man who knows global football inside out. I’m actually looking forward to hearing his analysis, which is more than I can say for most of these folk. I’ll be popping out for half-time cups of tea and flicking over to Wimbledon.