Football: Aerial warfare gives armchair fans a game of six halves: Giles Smith reflects on a busy afternoon of channel-hopping and goal-hunting

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The Independent Online
ON SUNDAY afternoon, live football was everywhere. BSkyB was showing Oldham v Everton from the Premier League. Channel 4 was in Naples with Juventus. And several ITV companies were screening First Division fixtures. Fans have never had it so good. It was a game of six halves. There were 33 of them and 33 of us. It was all about being spoilt for choice, at the end of the (extremely long) day.

In all, nine goals were scored, though you had to be in the right place at the right time to catch them. Through some strategically bold but sickeningly unlucky channel-hopping, this particular viewer managed to convert the entire afternoon into a goalless draw, supplemented only by replays and half-time look-backs.

So, while Andreas Moeller was elegantly carving his way through the Napoli defence, I was with The London Match (ITV), watching some It's A Knockout-style goalmouth incident in which the Brentford team were apparently trying to see how many players could sit on the penalty spot at the same time. When Newcastle struck for the second time in that game, I was listening to a less than scintillating dissection of the Oldham goal from Gordon Taylor of the PFA ('the lad came in really well').

And, thanks to a terrible fumble with the remote control, when Gianluca Vialli struck in a beautifully weighted free-kick from the edge of the box, I was watching Dirk Bogarde smuggle himself into a nurses' home after dark (Doctor in the House, BBC 1).

Flipping from Italy to west London and back was like cutting between Coronation Street and Dallas. Napoli's soaring stadium and Griffin Park were on adjacent channels, but different planets. Brian Moore was perched precariously in a demountable hut in the Brentford rafters and grumbling about the noise of the fans underneath him. 'I hope they're not spoiling your enjoyment.' Channel 4's Peter Brackley, watching from the comfort of a studio in London, could afford to sound relaxed by comparison.

Cynics had assured us that Italian football on the box would be about as exciting as a sponsored walk. So far, though, it's come stuffed with action and dripping with goals. There's also a higher incidence of yellow cards, the managers wear better suits and some sort of extraordinary violence is always imminent. When Juventus's Julio Cesar left the pitch, he was pelted with small objects by the home fans. And he was on a stretcher at the time. Chelsea's Paul Elliott blamed the incident on the poverty in the region, which overlooked the fact that the missile of choice appeared to be loose change.

The only comparable colour The London Match could offer was a shot of a Newcastle fan in a gorilla mask, and it was left to Ian St John to throw the money around. At half-time, he invited us to win pounds 250 playing Spot the Ball. Crosswords aside, it is hard to think of a competition less suited to television. A still from a game appears on the screen, littered with balls with numbers on, and you have to pick one. Simple enough, though it's just possible that baffled families all over the capital have marked their screens with felt tips and sent their sets in.

The principle here seems to be, if you can't earn an audience, maybe you can buy one. Channel 4 are on to this, too. Play 'Gazza's Goals' and win a football kit. More disquieting are the signs that the competition for viewers is affecting the commentators. Now more than ever, it's important to convince your audience that what they are seeing is worthwhile. In Naples, a poor pass across the pitch earned the remark 'Just tucked in there to Vialli.'

On BSkyB, the commentary is a never-ending dialogue between Martin Tyler and Andy Gray. BSkyB insists that by tweaking your controls you can tune out the talk altogether and just listen to the crowd. But most viewers are looking for something in between and the button has yet to be invented which can spot and eliminate tedious padding. Pity Tyler when it does. During a confused struggle in the Everton penalty area, the ball appeared to cannon off Neville Southall's head, which inspired Tyler to remark, 'The goalkeeper who collects clocks as a hobby was clocked then by the ball'. That earns him this year's John Motson award for the most tendentious use of research material in a live situation.

Meanwhile, Motson's Match of the Day (BBC 1) sits imperiously aloof from this unseemly squabbling. On Saturday night, it boasted the two highest scoring games in the league. Only Channel 4 could compare for strike-rate. How long before BSkyB viewers are playing Spot the Goal?

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