Football: View from the armchair: A place for Gazza in pundits' first eleven?

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The Independent Online
REPEAT after me: je suis une pomme de terre du canape. But most of all, say it proudly because, and I'm translating here, "we of the potatoes of the sofa" will be the real heroes of France 98. Ticketless we may be, but the hundreds of hours we are about to devote to the televised coverage of the biggest tournament in football history will be seen as the most noble of sacrifices as we forsake relationships, work, personal hygiene and healthy diets in favour of 33 days of wide-eyed sloth and food-stained clothing. So why haven't either the BBC or ITV signed up our patron saint, Gazza of Kebab-U-Like?

The 32 World Cup managers were allowed the luxury of a 2 June deadline for announcing their squads, but unfortunately our two national broadcasters covering the tournament had to finalise their line-ups months ago for publicity purposes. Somebody coming with a late run of form was always going to struggle to get in, and not many television folk could have expected Gascoigne's sudden availability for work. Unless there is a last-minute secret deal in the offing, resulting in a great coup de theatre in which a masked figure swings on a rope through the window of a World Cup studio and reveals himself, we are left with the conundrum of why England's most celebrated footballer of the 1990s is too much of an embarrassment to be taken up as a television pundit.

Some of the answers are too obvious to mention. The real reason is that Gascoigne belongs to an out-moded culture both on and off the field and would have had to undergo the same sort of intense, New Labour makeover that ITV's Barry Venison has endured in order to become presentable to a television audience. Short of changing his name to Jacques Derrida, Venison couldn't have upgraded himself more after giving up his bleach- blond locks and carpet tile jackets. But his reconstruction probably epitomises what has happened to televised football now that the market researchers and focus groups have had their say.

It explains why ITV pinched Ruud Gullit from the BBC to be its lead analyst and why the Beeb immediately retaliated by signing up David Ginola - it wasn't just a case of serving up the crumpet factor, but more that Gullit and Ginola are articulate spokesmen for British football's stylish new internationalism. For years, our television panels have routinely rubbished foreign players in tournaments for such assorted crimes as diving, not being good in the air, not liking tackles, being too emotional and going off for stitches to head wounds.

But Ron Atkinson, ITV's most vivid "colour commentator", will probably get a rocket in his earpiece from the producer if he continues to trawl the xenophobic joke books of his fellow scouser Stan Boardman. We are all Europeans now.

Indeed, I suspect that ITV will move heavily into BBC territory during this tournament, partly due to the mistakes learned from the disastrous studio set up at USA 94 - only President Kennedy died more horribly in Dallas than Matthew Lorenzo and Denis Law - but also because the man who masterminded the BBC's years of superiority, Brian Barwick, is running their show. Without trying to take the ITV audience too far upmarket - they have signed retro-lads Skinner and Baddiel after all - Barwick has nevertheless gone for a front row of high-profile managerial experts to dispense their wisdom and Alex Ferguson could be a real winner, provided he isn't paired with Kevin Keegan.

Cynics might point out that having ex-Chelsea manager Gullit and ex-Sheffield Wednesday manager Atkinson will make the studio more like a Job Centre than a football forum, but along with Bobby Robson and Terry Venables, both former England managers, with semi-final defeats to the Germans as emotional scars, they will present a formidable challenge if they can get the style right.

Style is unlikely to be a problem for the BBC, given that their anchorman Des Lynam has come to redefine the very word. You suspect that Des could probably do the entire tournament without speaking, simply raising an eyebrow or twirling his moustache instead. Only two things worry me about the Beeb - first, that they are a bit top-heavy with players as their experts and, secondly, that Des himself has been giving hints of turning into a bit of a "media tart" with his thematically related adverts - underarm deodorant and garden fertiliser - and his appearance in a recent play.

Des has already promised that, in keeping with football's upward profile, he will be brushing up his French in preparation. But what if he gets stuck into the pastis in Paris and goes completely native, smooching at the camera and leaving a Gauloise dangling in the corner of his mouth? There is no obvious replacement for him...unless of course? Could there yet be a role for the man who got stuck into the pasties?