Football: At Wembley the most ardent show of devotion seemed to be to strip to your waist and reveal your spread of patriotic tattoos
Tuesday 18 June 1996
The moment came not with John Barnes's audacious campaign to seize the Mickey Skinner Memorial Trophy for over-excited studio wear when he donned a pair of trousers apparently fashioned from a banana skin.
Nor did it come with Ruud Gullit's crisp dismissal of England and English football at half-time during the Scotland match, analysis so forthright you suspect Paul Furlong ought to be spending the summer looking for a new employer. It didn't even come with John Motson's unexpected confession during the Italy versus Russia game. "Albertini," revealed a breathless Mottie, "he's a player I really fancy."
No, it came with Gazza's glorious bid for inclusion in the goal celebration round in "They Think It's All Over".
"So Rory, what was Gazza doing there?" you can imagine Nick of Hancock enquiring as footage plays of the Fat Boy lying back and thinking of England behind the Wembley goal while Teddy Sheringham pours isotonic drink down his ever-open gob.
"Was it a post-modern, ironic riposte to his critics?" poses McGrath. "Was he re-enacting his dentist's-chair-and-tequila-moment on the Hong Kong tour to remind them pointedly that his preparation for the tournament had been more than adequate despite what all that was said and written?" "Not quite," Hancock says. "He was just pissed at the time."
Until that definitive point, it had been, a bit like the games themselves, all flirtation, all empty tricks, all mouth and (particularly in Barnes's case) trousers. In those early matches, the football was lost in the peripheries, taking second place in the coverage to more interesting diversions.
Following the lead set by Sky's coverage of England's cricket tour to South Africa, known in television circles as the bikini trip, the BBC cameramen appeared to be under instruction, during Italian games, for instance, to train their lenses on the decent-looking women in the visitors' crowd.
Indeed, much as there has developed an archetypal fan picked out by the cameras to characterise each Premiership team (for Sheffield Wednesday it's a shaven-headed pie-eater bare-chested in sub-zero temperatures, for Manchester United it's a family burdened with bags from the souvenir shop taking snapshots of the match, for Newcastle it's a librarian in bottle-bottom specs blubbing into his replica shirt) so, in the early days of Euro 96, the cameramen have been directed to reveal national stereotypes lurking in the crowd. Thus we have been treated to mad-eyed Turks with big drums, sombrero-clad Spaniards, thankfully minus their donkeys, and jolly Dutchmen dressed, for no apparent reason, as Indian chiefs.
During the opening exchanges on Saturday, the lenses had a field day in the Scots end picking out crimson-faced men in tartan berets and orange wigs, sweaty specimens swathed in plaid blankets and kilts, an entire nation, on the hottest day of the year, expiring under the burden of Vivian Westwood's new winter collection. By contrast what did the English have to show? There is no history of dressing up in our football culture. We don't turn up to support the national team in Beefeater tunics, busbys or top hat and tails. At Wembley, the most ardent show of devotion seemed to be to strip to the waist and thus reveal your spread of patriotic tattoos. Just as well then, that our favourite lad gave them something to focus on instead.
And now it has taken off, just before half-time in the tournament, you feel the BBC are heading for the dressing-room with a comfortable lead. Their long-term preparation (transferring Bob Wilson was a master-stroke) has paid off, their theme tune has been a yard quicker into the brain box and their panel is running rings round a flat and static ITV back line. Yesterday for the Germany versus Russia game, we saw ITV getting desperate and playing an entirely new system: Ray Wilkins tucking into the space behind Glenn Hoddle. On paper, a strong line-up. But Hoddle proved himself capable of putting more people to sleep than the late-night shipping forecast on Radio 4. And Wilkins (lovely man, lovely suits) really needs to do more than cagey little square responses. "I couldn't agree more with what Glenn's just said," simply does not create audiences at this level.
Compare that with the BBC's Hansen (all world-weary and cynical), Gullit (great hair, great mind) and Hill (giving viewers across the land a bit of much-needed exercise as they rise from their day-beds to punch the screen) and the portents are ominous. Just as Klinsmann is getting into gear for the Germans, you can't help feeling that in the commentary box as on the pitch, there is only going to be one winner of this tournament.
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