Football / World Cup USA '94: Mr All-Sports invades the domain of King Stat: Jim White assesses the World Cup performances that really matter - the commentators' duel and the battle for the viewers

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The Independent Online
AFTER 'delicious, delightful Denmark' there was to be no 'blistering, belting Brazil'. Roberto Baggio made it, leg held together by azure-coloured tape. But John Motson didn't (it was the first time, incidentally, that he hadn't taken on the big one since 1978) and as a result television screens across the nation were free from assault by flying beer can.

How King Stat would have enjoyed himself out there in Pasadena. All those long defensive periods enlivened by a jaunty chortle at a piece of trivia remembered; all those barren Brazilian moments just asking to be filled with puns about the irony of a goal drought from the home of the rain forest.

But there was no Motty. Instead there was Barry Davies, the Mr All-Sports of commentary, more used to B-list than big time. Although Davies' last assignment before the World Cup had clearly been motor racing (Baresi 'ran out of gas'; Baggio 'couldn't get out of third gear') he handled the occasion with much greater certainty than Gianluca Pagliuca, for instance.

Davies came armed with an anorak of stats, perhaps the one Motty had prepared earlier. Unlike his colleague, Davies used these to elucidate rather than obscure. 'The last time Brazil won the World Cup they had a population of 90 million,' he said as Dunga lifted the trophy. 'Twenty-four years on there's 150 million of them to enjoy the party.' Which made you realise why they are so good at football: they're never short for a pick-up game.

Davies showed a liking for the profound. 'Where is the true creator?' he asked at one point; a sizeable question for the 51st minute of a football match. Which may have explained why Trevor Brooking seemed subdued alongside him. Though his euphemism dial was on full - 'he just turns into Maldini' he said, as we saw slo-mo of the Italian player being subjected to a scything body check Big Daddy would have admired - we heard far less of Trev than we do when Motty is in control. Perhaps he was intimidated by his new partner's boastful pronunciation of players' names. While Davies, all flourish and rolling 'Rs', had clearly taken lessons from a Soho cafe owner before travelling to America, Brooking laboured worse than Baggio. A month he had had to work on Pagliuca, but three times, final nerves made him stumble. Eventually he settled on Pale-yool-ker, which was about as convincing as Don Howe's manner of calling the Romanian captain Argy. Not getting much out of Brooking, however, is a big plus for Davies's future.

On ITV, meanwhile, they had gone big: Big Jack and Big Ron. While Des Lynam's panel was sitting in a box high above the Rose Bowl, fighting fireworks and perspiration, Jack Charlton was in internal exile in Dallas, barely given time to tell us 'that's the Italians for you' before Matt Lorenzo interrupted with the important news that there was an ad break on the way. At least Ron Atkinson was allowed to see the game in the flesh, sitting with Brian Moore, crystal ball and tea leaves on hand: 'With all that's going on,' he said midway through the second half, 'you get the feeling this might just be Baggio's match. He might just be responsible for the little something that turns this game.' Birmingham City fans will be hoping the prescient Atkinson predicts that next year might just be Villa's season.

And so the mis-match reached its climax. The BBC walked the final as it had the rest; Davies merely adding the gloss to Hansen, Venables and Brady. Not to mention Des, winner of the broadcaster of the tournament for his smirking reaction to the defeat of the Germans. The only trick the BBC missed was at the death, when it failed to take a unique substitution opportunity during the penalty shoot-out. There on the bench they had Chris Waddle. Now he could have told us how Baggio felt.

The BBC won the battle for World Cup final viewers. Provisional figures show that 13.3m people watched its coverage, compared with 5.3m for ITV.