As far as co-commentators go, ITV might just edge it so far. Glenn Hoddle's unflustered Essex twang – kryptonite to many – has come to acquire a comfortingly avuncular quality: in that sense the closest thing we have to a latter-day Trevor Brooking.
His appeals for more thoughtful football are always quietly impassioned (albeit with the sort of pained undertones you suspect got under his players' skin), while the return of Ally McCoist has been a lovely surprise. He’s one of remarkably few in his role whose simple enjoyment shines through, and has ensured the duller games are enlivened by a dash of zany humour delivered in glorious Glaswegian deadpan. His gearing up for Sweden vs South Korea by waxing lyrical about that morning's omelette was one of the opening week's quirkier joys.
There’s little joy to be found in the world of Mark Lawrenson, however, whose tournament debut for France vs Australia was a milestone moment. That game, as broadcast on the BBC, was repurposed by the veteran miserablist as one man’s two-hour whinge about the moral failings of today's youth, while a football match took place somewhere in the background. For a man who had just been whisked away all expenses paid to witness the most popular event on earth, it was staggering stuff.
At which point it’s time for a confession: FFT liked it. There’s certainly a strong element of the Brexiteer-divorcee about Lawro, whose scattergun bleatings long since lapsed into self-parody, but it’s hard not to hold some grudging admiration for a man so hell-bent on not enjoying himself.
And as his whining veered from dad-joke ridicule (“What’s the matter with him this time – dislocated shoelace?”) to bleak existential despair (“Oh, what’s the point?” he wailed at one stage, in response to nothing in particular), it was hard not to feel a pang of affection for the joyless old git. Stockholm syndrome? Very possibly, but at least one of us was able to enjoy ourselves.
Out on the beat, the BBC’s interviews from the England camp – usually a fist-gnawingly dull affair – have been a cut above this time round, in part perhaps due to this newly unguarded new generation of players. But also because of Gabby Logan, who knows that the Frost/Nixon tactic will only get footballers' guards up, and whose ‘gently probing mum’ approach has hit upon the Holy Grail: insight, personality, even the odd smile – certainly much more than the thumb-twiddling platitudes offered up to ITV’s Gabriel Clarke. Her piece with Raheem Sterling was particularly nicely done – a long way from the golden generation’s straight-batting stoicism.
Speaking of which, the BBC’s coverage of England’s opening two games was reassuringly heavyweight. Alongside the simmering machismo of Alan Shearer, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard excelled. Both already feel like veterans of the punditry game despite being relative newcomers: authoritative, concise, unfailingly well-dressed and still visibly buoyed by the basic thrill of high-stakes football.
It's good to see the pair showcasing their experience and assuredness on the world stage, even if it is a decade too late. Of the new recruits, the immaculately groomed Cesc Fabregas, immediately at ease in the pundit’s chair, was an engaging presence – although sadly, his final game was Argentina vs Croatia. Fabregas’s description of setting up a World Cup-winning goal was terrific – and he brought a dashing continental handsomeness to proceedings, which is no less vital.
Alex Scott’s no-frills east London brogue and fiery urgency have been underused, while the lovely Pablo Zabaleta has been pleasant enough but hardly unmissable.
ITV’s punditry lineup, meanwhile, has been more of a mixed bag. The channel’s insistence on a four-person panel, despite ad breaks eating into everyone’s screen-time, has been the biggest misstep.
As far as personnel goes, Ryan “the raconteur” Giggs has been predictably forgettable, with the exception of one startling training-ground anecdote about Carlos Queiroz which started dull, went nowhere and ended without the merest hint of a punchline – to the obvious bewilderment of everyone in the studio. That Giggs, a man with the charisma of a Dalek, continues to be given broadcasting jobs can only be taken as a testament to the value of profile over performance, but if the channels have a shred of sense – or indeed mercy – this will be his last outing.
At no point during this does Ryan Giggs appear to wonder whether this really qualifies as an anecdote... June 15, 2018
There’s been plenty to offset that, though: Lee Dixon has been his usual chirpily engaging self, Eni Aluko has offered all the forensic eloquence you’d expect from a trained lawyer with 102 England caps, and Slaven Bilic’s compulsion to squeeze the thigh of any man within reach has been a consistent source of entertainment – not least when that man has been Roy Keane.
Keane himself, meanwhile, appears to be becoming rapidly aware of the narrow ‘disapproving-hardman’ character he has been assigned and is getting annoyed about it. “What’s your opinion on pre-half-time huddles?!” was one of a few giddily leading questions that have left him unimpressed.
And so he should be, too: it’s long been FFT’s suspicion that Keane is the great untapped gem of British punditry, with infinitely more to offer than the shareable put-downs he has come to specialise in. He’d surely fare better somewhere other than the soundbite-friendly brevity of ITV. (That said, his withering recollection of Carlos Queiroz questioning his commitment – “I should have ripped his head off” – was a tournament highlight and demonstrated the Irishman’s ability to harness the Keano persona to sublime comic effect. He is always at his best when walking the tightrope of sincere and self-aware.)
Back on the Beeb, Martin Keown and Danny Murphy have brought all the excitement of your average Saturday evening fourth-round FA Cup clash. Both are inoffensive enough, until you realise that part of their job is to relay to us the enormity of the occasion. Jermaine Jenas and Matthew Upson, meanwhile, seem full of the zest and relish lacking in their elders. The former’s journey to being a bona fide punditry virtuoso continues apace, the latter following in his wake. Their colleagues should take note.
Both title sequences, it has to be said, have been underwhelming. The BBC’s iPad-heavy number gets (easy) marks for its snippets of Barry Davies but fails to quite capture either the immensity of the event or the spirit of its setting – until a last-gasp ushanka-doll set-Red Square flurry, it could be the intro for a World Cup anywhere. ITV's manages the precise opposite: achieving a sense of occasion a place but completely backgrounding the actual football. However, it's the closing montages where the real crust will be earned, and we wait for both with bated breath.
For all the slick professionalism, this wouldn't be a World cup without some pointless gimmickry, and the clear winner in this category is the BBC's scorer-flasher things, which are as difficult to fathom as to describe.
A less trivial low point was Patrice Evra applauding Aluko’s punditry on ITV. Those who hoped he might have Finchy-d his way out of a job were to be disappointed when he returned, slouched and bored, the following day and presumably on a final warning. As for Evra's own insights, it’s fair to say none have prompted spontaneous applause, although he has at least perked up a bit as the tournament's gone on.
Over on the Beeb, it’s much of a muchness: Gary Neville, who looks (apologies in advance) rather naked without his usual array of whirring gadgetry, has done what he can within the ITV format; likewise the ever-wonderful Ian Wright, though both are shadows of their alter egos. Neville the Younger, meanwhile, seems like a well-meaning enough chap but is yet to say anything that hasn't been instantly forgotten by everyone who heard it. He also provided the world with a dictionary definition of mansplaining – as he did alongside Scott last Wednesday – which isn’t a great look for anyone, let alone the manager of the England women’s team.
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