Frank Skinner and David Baddiel made fantasy football a reality on the BBC. Now they've changed channels, and the World Cup presents their biggest challenge. By Graham Wray
WHISPER it quietly but the underdogs, ITV, may have already won the battle for World Cup viewers. After years spent wasting their money on Saint and Greavsie, over-elaborate studio sets and keeping John Barnes in complicated collars, someone at ITV Sport has finally earnt their salary. Luring the comedians, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, from the BBC for 16 live Fantasy World Cup shows is surely a transfer swoop akin to Alex Ferguson's famous raid on Elland Road, when he snaffled Eric Cantona for the price of two of Barry Venison's suits. Because, for the millions of football fans who can't get to the World Cup itself, the next best thing is to watch it at Frank and Dave's gaff.

Granted, Fantasy Football League was never the slickest of productions, but given that the last series attracted viewing figures of over 6 million per week, it would appear that the BBC, in allowing the duo to be poached by ITV, have committed an own goal. "We'd been in discussion with the BBC for ages," explains Baddiel.

"But the programme is more complicated than it was before so it's more expensive. We'd always operated on the same budget and now suddenly the BBC wanted to know why it was going to cost them an awful lot more - and although they did offer us more money, it wasn't as much as ITV were offering. We just wanted to be in a position whereby if we needed to swing Bryan Robson from a crane over Middlesbrough, and there's every possibility, then we'd be in a position to do that."

For some though, the sight of Baddiel and Skinner on ITV is tantamount to treason. Like Morecambe and Wise, Des Lynam and the Grand National, their natural home will always be the BBC, away from ad breaks and vulgar sponsorship buffers.

Let it not be forgotten that Eric and Ernie's demise was confirmed the moment they left the warm confines of Auntie Beeb's bosom. More worrying for Skinner and Baddiel is the very real danger of being tarnished by ITV's World Cup coverage. Four words will suffice from USA 94: Matthew Lorenzo's Dallas Brunch.

The pair visibly wince. "One of the things we will be talking about comically in the show is the fact that we're on ITV. That will be a running gag in the series," Baddiel says.

Skinner is less diplomatic: "We're in a no-lose situation because if this is the year when ITV finally sort it out then it'll be great to be part of the revolution. And if ITV are laughably poor then there'll be jokes galore to be had at our landlord's expense. The thing is ITV's football coverage used to be great. We've been looking at old World Cups with people like Hugh Johns and he was fantastic. The old ITV World Cup panels used to be really entertaining too. Eventually, there's going to be a World Cup where people say, actually ITV's coverage was spot on. I think Gullit is brilliant. He'll be ITV's Alan Hansen. So I think it's got to get better soon or later.

"Don't forget that when Sky first started their coverage was really embarrassing. Who will ever forget the Sky Strikers - that dance group they used to wheel on. I can also remember watching Sheffield United v Oldham on a wet Monday night. It was a dreadful 0-0 stalemate and at the end of it they had a fireworks display and played "Land of Hope and Glory" over the PA, which I thought was perhaps a slight misjudgement. But Sky's coverage now is brilliant, so I suppose anything's possible."

While the main elements of the show remain the same, Fantasy World Cup will be broadcast live, a bold decision given that neither of them have done much live television and Statto isn't exactly the most consummate of performers. "The thing about World Cups is that it's like a whole season in four weeks," explains Baddiel.

"There's such a concentrated amount of football that things happen very suddenly and you have to be able to react to them. On some occasions we're going to be watching an evening game with our show starting 15 minutes after the final whistle. So we'll be sat there writing material as that game's going on. And as far as Statto's concerned, it will make absolutely no difference to him - I don't think he even knew it wasn't live before. I don't know if he was even aware it was on television."

"I think people like the idea that it hasn't all been written weeks in advance," adds Skinner. "We will literally be writing right up until broadcast time and probably sticking in a couple during the commercial breaks too. In between taking our Prozac, obviously. But what we lose in the ability to edit we'll make up for in the fact that it'll be in the white heat of topicality. Besides, the show has always been so ramshackle that a lot of people always thought it was live anyway. But it's what World Cups are all about - you switch off your normal life and hand it over to football for four weeks. What we're doing is just a slightly more extreme version of that."

Stalwarts of Fantasy Football can look forward to more star guests and an all-new batch of "Phoenix From The Flames". Guests lined up include Tracey Ullman, Mike Myers, Richard Wilson and Michael Palin. "The great thing about the World Cup is that you can get people on the show by promising them tickets," says Baddiel.

"Obviously it's a lie but it works extremely well. We're also trying to get Rod Stewart. He's someone we've tried to get for ages but who never seems to be around at the right time. Gazza is another who's impossible to pin down."

So how do they decide on guests?

"The policy is simple," says Skinner. "An interest in football or nice legs." An alarming pre-requisite given that Russell Grant once made it on to the show.

The new "Phoenix" segment will feature the likes of Eusebio, Jairzhino, Roger Milla, Bryan Robson and Archie Gemmill. "We did talk about doing Pele and Maradona," says Baddiel, "but both of them were just too expensive. And one of them I thought might be a touch unreliable."

Given some of the things that they've had footballers dressed up in (Mario Kempes in a Supermario costume and David Platt in David Pleat's old suit for instance), it's a testament to the appeal of the show that footballers still queue up to make an appearance.

"The secret is that we have a genuine admiration for these blokes," explains Skinner. "We both grew up on the Morecambe and Wise tradition where you get a big star on and mess about - which makes them look even better. And of course we dress up too so when they see Dave dressed as the girl from Riverdance, they feel a bit easier about putting things on themselves."

While the boys clearly have an eye for the absurd (from nowhere, Skinner observes that if Graham Kelly had ever been on a hippy commune, he'd now be Jerry Springer) they also take their football very seriously.

"One of the brilliant things about Hoddle," enthuses Skinner, "is that if someone's in great form, he'll put them straight in. Dion Dublin was a typical example. The England tradition has always been that if a player's in the form of his life you have to wait and wait and then just as he's on the very cusp of a bad patch, he gets put in and plays poorly. But with Glenn, as soon as people look good, like Michael Owen and Dublin, he puts them straight in."

So is there anyone you think that's been overlooked?

"Dennis Wise has been very consistent and I'd like to see Darren Huckerby play before we go just to see whether he can do it at international level," says Baddiel.

"But it's interesting with Hoddle," Skinner says. "Because if you asked that question of any other England manager you could rattle off loads of names but we're struggling to come up with any really. Most people agree that Glenn is picking the best players in England and I think we've forgotten how rare that is in an England manager."

Baddiel however, has more personal reasons for being a Hoddle disciple.

"I bumped into Glenn at Wembley and I always wear the same old England top. He actually came over to me and said, `I see you're still wearing that old top then - lucky is it?' Not only had the England manager exchanged pleasantries with me but he'd actually remembered what I was wearing on a previous occasion."

Despite their obvious love of the game, their workload must surely make them vulnerable to overdosing on it?

"No, football is fine, it's just the other stuff about football that I'm fed up with. Stuff like our programme," laughs Baddiel. "It's odd, but we moan about people being on the football wagon even though we're seen as the drivers of said wagon," adds Skinner.

"But I think it's good that new people are coming into football - it's not an exclusive club is it? I don't like the snobbery that says anyone who likes football has to prove it with a quiz."

What do the pair think of England United's "(How Does it Feel to be) On Top of the World" anthem? Baddiel looks at his trainers, his expression suggests he has spotted something unsavoury on the soles. "Er, I think I'd rather not comment. Though I'd like to say that I'm not bothered in the slightest that "Three Lions" wasn't chosen. I don't think it can be the official song forever."

"Besides which," adds Skinner, "I honestly believe we've written the best football song in the world - again. On the B-side of the "Three Lions" remix is the theme to the show - it's called "Toute Est Possible" and it is the best football song I've ever heard in my life - even better than "Three Lions". It's going to take France by storm."

Hand on heart, wouldn't they rather be over there? "There's no question I'd rather be there watching it," says Baddiel mournfully. "And if England do well, things could get seriously out of hand."

"We've actually said that if England get to the final we'd simply have to go," says Skinner. "So in that event we're actually going to walk out of our contract with ITV and face the consequences in court."

Baddiel back-pedals frantically: "No, what we've actually said is that if England get there we might just go and film the show on a camcorder outside the ground."

"If England reach the World Cup final I don't think anyone will care what's on television anyway," says Skinner. "We'll just sing "Toute Est Possible" for 30 minutes which by then will be the new national anthem anyway."