Punditry means never having to say you're sorry

On The Press: Football fans live on hope, so that's what they're fed until we go out

Spare a thought for the sports writers making their way home from Germany tonight after weeks enduring the heat, the passion, the production of so many written or spoken words, and the constant retuning of their views in the light of changing facts.

My one close encounter with the football hacks was to spend the whole of the 1974 World Cup - also in Germany - as a news reporter. The withdrawal after it was all over was that of mission accomplished, although the Scots had gone home weeks earlier and England had not even qualified. There was much champagne on the plane home and my abiding memory is of the exit from arrivals at Heathrow of a small column of the more distinguished press, led and tailed by constables, after an incident at the baggage carousel.

Sports journalism is distinguished from other branches of the trade by its freedom to be wrong with no comeuppance. Rumour is truth - until dismantled by events. And prediction is seldom considered opinion - until it is wrong. It is a world of punditry and it is not treated as a game, although it is about one.

The pundits have to be serious and authoritative. They are a mix of former and current footballers and journalists. The former are there because they "know the game". The latter because they are more coherent, particularly in print, have longer memories, because they are older, and because they are prepared to ask difficult questions. There are occasional overlaps between these two groups.

The challenge they face is to cater both to the fans and, much less, to reality, if such a word can be used in the context of sport. Fandom is living the dream; in the battle between head and heart, head is seldom in the game. Fans live in hope. They do not approach a tournament thinking there is no chance. What would be the point?

So the pundits/journalists must always talk and write as though England have a chance - until they haven't. And then they must analyse the defeat they said the previous day was so unlikely. For The Independent after the victory over Ecuador it was "the feelgood factor" and a huge picture of smiling David Beckham. The Daily Telegraph detected "renewed hope". In the Daily Mail footballer Jamie Redknapp was assuring us "there is so much more to come".

And after England's elimination? "England can have no excuses": The Daily Telegraph. "Disgraceful, preposterous, disastrous": The Independent. "England's guilty men": Daily Mail. "He banked, he bonked and he ballsed up": the Daily Mirror on Sven Goran Eriksson. "Goodbye tosser": The Sun. "He tossed away our cash, he tossed away our talent... now he's tossed away our World Cup dreams."

Television pundits, with their replays, slomos and diagrams, can dissect every move and illustrate every point they make. Nobody did it better than Alan Hansen, but even he had to change his line after Argentina and Brazil, his tips for the final, were eliminated. If you are a pundit you have to be confidently wrong.

Alastair Campbell, lately of No 10, now a Times sports columnist, told his readers last week that the BBC were forcing viewers to watch the World Cup "through a lens marked England". It saw itself as "an extension of the official England fan club". This was not an accurate description of the BBC coverage in general, and in terms of England coverage what did Campbell expect? Sport is not about balance.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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