Robin Scott-Elliot: Oh the shame of watching pre-season friendlies

View From The Sofa: Asia Trophy / Swimming World Championships, Sky Sports / BBC2
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The Independent Culture

Last week was all about costume drama. In Rome, the world's best swimmers were controversially suited, while at far-flung staging posts around the globe the Premier League's finest were stripping off their tracksuit tops to reveal this season's new look.

You may have studied it on the club's website, or seen it stretched across the ample frame of Ray Winstone, but it is not until the team itself actually appears in the strip that you can pass proper judgement. Which is why it is so important to watch pre-season friendlies.

Which is a desperate attempt to justify the unjustifiable; rather like claiming you're fascinated by Lady Gaga's bottom because you can't help wondering whether her music would be quite the same without it. Would her performance be so dazzling if it were forced to remain in the rear, so to speak? I wonder.

Only someone with an unhealthy obsession would be caught flagrantly watching the Asia Trophy, or the Wembley Cup, or the Emirates Cup. But then ... how else do you get a first glimpse of your new holding midfielder, or judge who has put on the most weight, or soaked up the Tango-est tan, or see if when Jermain Defoe gets tired Peter Crouch pops him on his shoulders and keeps him awake by pretending they're going on a bear hunt. These are things you need to know ahead of the big kick-off proper, which can't be far away given that Sky is now running promos every seven seconds.

Sky takes its pre-season seriously, and you'd expect nothing less. Martin Tyler was dispatched to Beijing, which, we were told at least twice in the first five minutes, is the capital of China. It was their turn to stage the Asia Trophy and the denizens of the Chinese capital can have talked of little else since the fixtures were announced. At last a chance to see Phil Brown in the flesh. Their presence in Beijing showed, said someone, "how far Hull have come". "I wouldn't have swapped this for all the tea in China," said Brown before launching into a hip-hop rearrangement of the Goons' "Ying-Tong" song.

The problem with friendlies is that you can't watch a whole one, or if you do you're left with a vague feeling of guilt at having wasted two hours and a looming sense of embarrassment in case anyone should find out, a bit like watching Love Actually.

Events in Rome were rather more competitive, and that was just in the stands where off-duty swimmers were in competition to show off their finely tuned torsos. If there was a bikini involved, and there were plenty, so much the better for the Italian cameramen, who lapped it all up. Imagine their delight when they caught sight of Totti.

In the pool, the swimmers wore more than on dry land, with many clad in the new polyurethane swimsuits with go-even-faster stripes. One man not suited was Michael Phelps, who went from "almost invincible" to "utterly destroyed" within the space of two minutes as a result. "Suddenly there are Germans everywhere," revealed Andy Jameson, as Paul Biedermann – Phelps' conqueror – celebrated. Germans? Best seats around the pool?

Jameson is one half of a commentary partnership with Adrian Moorhouse that is as good as any about. As well as knowing their sport inside out, they have a lightness of touch and transmit a genuine enthusiasm for what they are describing. "Excuse me," said Moorhouse as he watched Aaron Peirsol, a highly-rated American, make a mess of his heat. "But what an idiot."