Who'll win the TV World Cup?

The star-studded line-up for the screen World Cup has already been picked. And as on the field of play, to pull in the spectators there are flashy front-runners and reliable plodders
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THEY think it hasn't started yet, but it has. Two awesome teams, a-glitter with stars, have worked out their strategies and are getting their advance parties in place for the grudge match that will settle the issue for the next four years: will more of us watch the World Cup on BBC1 or ITV?

Yet it will be a phoney war because, in the early rounds at least, the two teams will be shooting into empty goals. They are sharing the group matches between them, so that there will never be live football on both channels at the same time. And both will be taking their pictures of the games from French television. But they have each invested pounds 10m and more than l00 people in their coverage. They are waging the struggle as if their place in TV's Premier League depended on it.

"We go into this in a damned confident mood because of the way we've been presenting football live on air in the last few months," says Brian Barwick, ITV's Controller of Sport, who moved over from the BBC only this year. "When I walked into the launch of our coverage last week I was gobsmacked by the array of talent at the top table."

The BBC's World Cup editor Niall Sloane is confident in a more restrained way, as befits a manager with a consistent record of victory over his long-time rivals. "I'm very pleased with the composition of our team," he observes cautiously. And the star-studded opposition? "Hmm ... a lot of coaches there." Ouch.

From the start of the contest on 10 June every group match will be covered live, except in the later stages when there are some simultaneous starts. This means we shall be able to see as many as three games in one day. For instance, on the first Saturday, 13 June, we can start at lunchtime with Spain v Nigeria on BBC1, switch to ITV for South Korea v Mexico, then back to BBC1 for Holland v Belgium.

TV football takes its present form due to an accident of history. If television had been invented before radio, the art of commentary might not exist. It never would have occurred to anyone that you need do any more than scatter a few cameras around the ground and let viewers watch as if they were there, with occasional help in identifying the protagonists.

But presenting football on radio demands powers of vivid description, fast talking and the ability to work listeners up to a mouth-foaming frenzy every time the ball gets within 30 yards of the goalmouth. When TV arrived, the same conventions were observed. Thus began a process that led to the manic outpourings of Kenneth Wolstenholme, David Coleman, Brian Moore and a host of imitators. Shortly afterwards came the fashion for endless analysis of the new-found intricacies of a game once regarded as uncomplicated, not to say plain dumb.

Today it is the analysts who have star billing - rather as in newspapers, where big-name columnists now rank above foot-slogging reporters in status and salary. That is why ITV believes it has a potential match-winner in Ruud Gullit, the former Chelsea manager, lured away from the BBC with a lucrative two-year contract.

"He was undoubtedly the star of Euro '96," Barwick enthuses. "He's a charismatic, beguiling figure who's been the world's greatest footballer, and his articulation is remarkable. He's chosen to work for ITV this time. I think this is quite a critical moment.

The BBC believes it has found a promising challenger in Ally McCoist, a late signing when he was not included in Scotland's playing squad. "He's got used to TV on A Question of Sport," Sloane observes. "I'm attracted by his charisma and sense of fun."

Apart from rivalry in capturing the big names, the two sides compete fiercely over their title credits and theme tunes. The BBC's chart-topping success with Nessun Dorma in 1990 established a benchmark for the use of music in sport. This year the BBC has gone for Faure's Pavane, but this has already fallen foul of a critic in the Daily Telegraph who complained that it has been crudely adapted. Sloane is miffed. He says the critic "didn't take into consideration that the music was chosen to accompany a very specific set of titles".

So tell us about the titles. "They're made up of some wonderfully evocative and definitive moments from the World Cup, from 1966 onwards. We shot it in an art nouveau brasserie in Paris." The location fits the classic Piaf and Pernod image of Paris that the BBC's coverage will reflect, missing only an accordionist in a beret and a haze of Gauloise cigarettes. The programmes will be linked from a studio high above the Place de la Concorde, with the Paris skyline as a backdrop.

''We can see the Eiffel Tower, the River Seine and the Louvre," sighs Sloane. "And if we turn the cameras round we can see Montmartre. It's got wonderful possibilities."

ITV will be doing things differently. "We're going on the road," says Barwick. "We think it's important to catch the flavour of the World Cup by going to the venues. Most of the linking of the live matches will be from purpose-built studios at the stadiums." The ITV title sequence will reflect this. It will include images of all France rather than just Paris. We shall discover the delights of venues such as Lens, Nantes, Lyon and St Etienne.

ITV's theme music is also something completely different - Rendezvous '98, a re-working of a hit by Jean-Michel Jarre. Barwick is sure it will be a winner: "I take pride in having been involved in the choice of Nessun Dorma eight years ago. This time the decision was not to go to the classical library but to choose a piece that would reflect that football is moving in a fast and furious way in terms of its fashion status.

"Look at the commercials between programmes - every other one seems to have a football context," says Barwick. "The Nineties game has caught fire and the players are the pop stars of our day. This is an upbeat, up-tempo piece of music that fits on all sorts of levels. Jean-Michel Jarre is French, he loves his football and he's an artist."

There will only be a real contest between these contrasting approaches if England or Scotland - or both - reach the semi-finals. Then all deals are off. Both channels will deploy their biggest guns. To watch one or the other will be all but compulsory.

In your dreams maybe; but if it does come to that, the BBC has history on its side. The last match screened live by both channels was England's Euro '96 semi-final against Germany. Then, 17.5 million watched on BBC1, only 6.3 million on ITV.

"That was our biggest ever victory and we'd hope to repeat that if we go head-to-head this time," says Sloane. Barwick concedes that "there will always be some viewers who prefer the BBC because they feel that's where a state occasion should properly be housed".

This may be the last such contest between the TV's twin Titans. The rights for the 2002 World Cup have been sold to the German Kirch group, and British rights will have to be negotiated with them.

Although all games in the World Cup finals are on the protected list of sports that have to be made available on non-subscription terrestrial TV, the Government's advisory group has suggested this safeguard should be modified, with only key games protected in future.

Whatever the outcome, satellite companies are almost certain to be involved in the bidding for 2002 and the price may go beyond what the BBC, limited by its reliance on the licence fee, can afford. It has already lost the FA Cup final to ITV.

So for the BBC, when the final whistle blows on 12 July and McCoist, Lineker, Lynam and the rest switch off their charisma for the last time, it might really be all over.

ITV ROVERS

BOB WILSON

"One of the most respected figures in the game," says ITV. Well yes, a good goalkeeper in a fine, double-winning Arsenal side who now coaches David Seaman, the Arsenal and England keeper. We know he knows it all, but does he have to sound so dull? Rating out of 10: 6

RUUD GULLIT

Could go either way. Cut a brilliant figure during the 1996 European Championships, when his near perfect use of English (he's Dutch) and talk of "sexy football'' left his team-mates trailing. Now, after his fall from favour at Chelsea, there is a feeling there is less to Gullit than meets the eye. Rating: 8

GLENN HODDLE

"Participation in the ITV team will depend on England's progress." So if last week's Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Belgium games are anything to go by we will see a lot of him. Not a great speaker to start with and now paranoid after all the publicity about his faith in faith healers.

Rating: 6

BARRY VENISON

Another once-famous haircut (see Waddle) who has learned the benefits of a close crop. Spectacles give him remarkable air of intelligence. Very loud jackets used to detract from the effect. Cool, calm, capable - why wasn't he like this as a player?

Rating: 7

RON ATKINSON

What an old pro, with a fine line in pointless platitudes from this great game of football. As with his work as a manager, no one is quite sure if he is a brilliant motivator or good at pushing his luck. Many hang on his interchanges with the commentator Brian Moore, not necessarily for the right reasons.

Rating: 6

KEVIN KEEGAN

"His insight has made him a key figure in ITV's commentary line-up." But nothing will ever match his words as a manager, when he realised Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were wresting the Premiership title from Newcastle United. That was great TV; this will be competent.

Rating: 7

IAN ST JOHN

Now here is an old pro who does know how to unbend a little, partly as a result of his long-running double act with Jimmy Greaves, another colourful character from a different era. In danger of becoming a parody of himself, but a grinning, jovial presence it would be hard to dislike.

Rating: 8

ALEX FERGUSON

It is hard to equate the hatchet-faced, single-minded, gum-chewing Ferguson of the Manchester United touchline with the off-stage man who shows signs of common sense and humour. If the second attributes are on show, and no one rubs him up the wrong way, he could be a star.

Rating: 8

TERRY VENABLES

How good is Terry Venables? is one of those questions to keep all fans entertained through the two weeks this summer that we shall be without football. He took England to the semi-finals of the European Championships but not Australia to France. He can talk all night - but is he right?

Rating: 8

BOBBY ROBSON

Another former England manager, a man written off until his side got to the World Cup semi-finals in 1990. Perpetually anxious- looking, over- verbose and a tendency to confuse a few words. But he knows a lot about football and is worth listening to.

Rating: 7

JOHN BARNES

Another star who shows why it can be a mistake to take our idols off the field. Barnes clearly spends a fortune on clothes, though critics would argue that the salesmen see him coming. Believes in the rule that professionals do not criticise fellow pros.

Rating: 6

BRIAN MOORE

Many fans' favourite commentator, who has the knowledge but avoids the train-spotting qualities of his BBC rivals. When BBC and ITV both showed the FA Cup, many felt the perfect combination would be his words and the BBC's pictures.

Rating: 9

ITV TOTAL RATING: 86

BBC UNITED

DES LYNAM

Laid-back television anchorman described by the BBC as "the safest pair of hands in sports broadcasting''. He is, allegedly, exciting even women viewers with his easy charm. Conveys the excitement of sport while acknowledging that it is not life and death. Humorous in an over-serious world.

Rating out of 10: 9

DAVID GINOLA

Puts Lynam's sex appeal in proportion, his Gallic good looks enhanced by stylish clothes and topped off with a fine head of hair (he models for L'Oreal shampoo). The only man worth watching at Tottenham Hotspur last season will be the only pundit offering real glamour from France.

Rating: 8

ALAN HANSEN

The much-bemedalled former Liverpool defender passed his 'A' levels, a qualification that raises him far up the intellectual ranks of professional footballers. Opinionated, articulate and patronising of those who didn't reach his playing level, he actually has interesting things to say, an unusual trait.

Rating: 9

MARK LAWRENSON

Another successful former Liverpool defender who may be nicer than Alan Hansen but suffers from his higher voice, a worryingly bouffant hairdo and a reluctance to engage in his team-mate's cheerful demolition of inept play.

Rating: 7

JIMMY HILL

Where would we be without The Chin, a mainstay of the BBC football operation since the days when Bobby Charlton still had hair, and the one-time staple of the nation's impressionists? Speaks passionately and introduces a rare moral tone, keen to see fair play.

Rating: 7

GARY LINEKER

This man has been highest scorer at a World Cup finals, but we will hear nothing of the hard physical labour, the kicks and the elbows that go with being a great striker. He brings his reputation as a gentleman with him, taking the true professional's care to avoid the controversial or critical.

Rating: 7

ALLY McCOIST

Latest in a line of Scottish character footballers who suggest they would be great company down the pub. Quick, clever, articulate, he cut his teeth on sports quiz programmes, where he even suggested he could manage without a script.

Rating: 8

MARTIN O'NEILL

Dangerously outspoken and remarkably rounded for a football manager - perhaps it comes from being brought up in Northern Ireland's much-vaunted education system. He has challenging and interesting things to say - a promising new signing for the BBC.

Rating: 8

TREVOR BROOKING

A splendid reminder that those brilliant lights of the West Ham footballing academy of the 1970s had their brains in their feet. Brooking, to be fair, is far from thick. But it is a shame that someone with his experience of the game gives us so little insight into it.

Rating: 6

CHRIS WADDLE

How many times will we have to watch film of Waddle blazing the ball over the bar in the penalty shoot-out between Germany and England in Turin eight years ago? The hair - he once had the naffest cut in football - is now under control and he has an engaging smile. But don't expect challenging analysis.

Rating: 6

JOHN MOTSON

Once we would have pitied him his train- spotter's life among the football stats: now his attention to detail and the fact that he can remember every World Cup goal he has ever seen, makes him an object of awe for many among his television audience. Still the boy with the autograph book - remarkable really. Rating: 8

BARRY DAVIES

For years he vied with Motson as the BBC's lead commentator, competing for every big match and Cup final, when the BBC still had the final. Efficiently reinvented himself, doing hockey and minority sports with skill if not pizzazz.

Rating: 7

BBC TOTAL RATING: 90

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