Motson meets his match - silenced by the red button

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The Independent Online

For the bosses of BBC Sport, it was supposed to be a chance to show off the latest benefit of digital television - a choice of World Cup commentary.

But, as Gary Lineker smoothly invites viewers to enter the digital universe by pressing the red button on their remote controls, the corporation may not have realised it was fulfilling the dearest wish of thousands: the opportunity to silence John Motson.

As the BBC's chief football commentator, and veteran of six World Cups, "Motty" is loved by millions for his comforting patter and was voted Britain's favourite commentator in 2001 with 32 per cent of the vote.

But it seemed yesterday that fans were exercising their right to choose in greater than expected numbers by swapping Motson, and his co-commentator Mark Lawrenson, for his rivals on BBC Radio Five Live or even the undiluted sound of the noise from each stadium.

A Five Live source said: "We're delighted with the ratings for the England game. There were a lot of listeners reaching us via the interactive television service. Motty is a national treasure but there are some people out there who would rather listen to the different style that is radio commentary. Now they can exercise that choice with the red button."

The hi-tech drift away from the main television commentary was confirmed in internet chatrooms. One entry read: "The BBC have got it spot on with their World Cup coverage. The red button allows you to ditch the idiotic TV commentary from John Motson and Mark Lawrenson and instead allows you to select BBC Radio Five Live which tends to be far superior. Brilliant, brilliant."

The corporation leapt to the defence of its 61-year-old national treasure yesterday by insisting that it had no way of measuring how many digital viewers were indeed giving Motson the red button. But it confirmed that record numbers, including thousands among the 13 million who watched England's opening game against Paraguay on Saturday, had accessed digital options, including the alternative commentary.

It is understood that the corporation did not consult its leading commentators, including Radio Five Live's Alan Green, about the beauty contest potential of offering alternative commentary. But, in an interview last week with The Independent, the controller of Five Live, Bob Shennan, confirmed that he expected viewers to switch to the radio commentary, if only during rival ITV games: "That was the sports department's decision to allow people the choice. Of course a lot of people will love to listen to Motty but we are expecting that when it's an ITV game everyone will want to listen to Alan Green."

Motson, who has commentated on more than 1,000 games, will nonetheless remain the corporation's World Cup voice of choice. Analysis of the voice of the son of a Methodist minister found that he had the best vocal qualities of any of his rivals and was able to speak at double the normal speed and across twice the range of an average person.

A BBC spokesman said: "John Motson remains as popular as ever with fans. The interactive audio streams are about offering more choice to our viewers."

With his love of statistics and catchphrase "very much so", Motson rose to national prominence in the early 1970s, commentating from the muddy battlefields of the FA Cup such as non-league Hereford United's shock defeat of Newcastle United in 1972.

For a while he vied with fellow BBC grandee Barry Davies for the title of first-choice commentator but eventually became the undisputed choice for major footballing occasions.

Motson revealed recently that his apparent love of sheepskin coats is due to a deal he struck early in his career to buy seven identical garments from a Hornchurch trader.

Bon mots

* Brazil - they're so good it's like they are running round the pitch playing with themselves.

* I think this could be our best victory over Germany since the war.

* Nearly all the Brazilian supporters are wearing yellow shirts - it's a fabulous kaleidoscope of colour.

* It looks like a one-man show here, although there are two men involved.

* The goals made such a difference to the way this game went.

* The World Cup is a truly international event.

* For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are in the all-yellow strip.

* And Seaman, just like a falling oak, manages to change direction.

* The unexpected is always likely to happen.

* It's delirious, it's delightful, it's Denmark.