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Mark Steel on World Cup 2014: There’s only way to save punditry from oblivion – ditch the footballers and choose at random from the electoral register

  • @mrmarksteel

Ed Miliband needs to learn from Phil Neville. Because Phil’s commentating style was so lacking in passion that the Manaus stadium could have burned down on Saturday, and as the fans fled in terror Phil would have said: “Well, that’s what flames can do. If you leave them unmarked. Quite hot there now. Lots of stuff melting. Not what you want to see as a manager.”

But it’s not his fault, because like Ed Miliband, all of the pundits must be trained to sound boring. Alan Shearer can’t be that bland in real life, he was an astounding player and he’s a Geordie. Maybe at a colder World Cup in Russia he’ll revert to type, take his top off outside, climb up a pylon, drop his trousers and scream “Oy Lineker, I bet none of yer crisps are this flavour man,” before being detained for a year in a St Petersburg jail.

Millionaire footballers can’t normally have conversations in the anodyne tones they employ as pundits. On nights out do they mutter: “Well, obviously he’ll be disappointed to lose fifty grand in a casino, but you know, now he can hire a prostitute and, you know, be pleased for an opportunity to bounce back?” 

Even Thierry Henry has turned dull. He looks beautiful and sounds silkily French but all he says is that the team losing will be hoping to do better in the second half. So the best way to watch him is with the sound off, so you can imagine he’s saying “Ah you suggest the striker will hope for a decent cross, but what is hope? Is it that of which we are capable but to which we have never attained, or something more transcendent, beyond our imagination – which may become perfect if he gets in behind the central defenders while staying onside.”


Instead, like the politicians, they seem to think that when speaking in public you should on no account say anything instinctive or with passion, as it may be interpreted as alarming or controversial. So Ed’s ideal interview would be one in which he was allowed to hum the answer “mmm mm mm-mm mmm mmm mm mm-mm mmm” to the tune of New York New York as this could in no way be seen as being soft on the Middle East.

When you see clips of football pundits in the Seventies you can’t help but feel nostalgic, because like the politicians of the time even if they were dreadful at least they were human. Derek Dougan would say something like “That was never a penalty”, and Brian Clough would call him an ignorant bucket of donkey sick, so they’d whack each other with sections of the World of Sport logo while Jimmy Hill laughed “come on boys”.

But now everyone’s trained in media skills, until they’re so skilled at media there’s no point in them being on the media as they’ve got nothing to say.

They’ll be teaching it at primary schools soon, so you’ll ask your six-year-old if she ate all the ice cream, and she’ll say: “First of all, thanks for asking me to come into the kitchen to discuss this, mum. Look, I know you do a very difficult job very well and come under a great deal of pressure. But I too face a range of tough choices, and that’s why I’m working jolly hard to go forward in doing what’s best for all of us.”

But as Phil Neville and Ed Miliband are finding out, a clinically moderate tone devoid of emotion is so perfectly designed to not upset anyone, it upsets everyone.

So to start with, football pundits should be chosen at random from the electoral roll, in the same way as juries. This would be a better method than restricting the post to people who watch football regularly, as they would be the most hopeless of all. The commentator would say “So, the match kicks off with England playing from left to right” and the pundit would chip in “Sort it OUT Hodgson you WANKER. I can’t BELIEVE this, nine seconds and we’re not beating Costa Rica he’s got to GO”.

Even before that, they’d yell “COME on England we’re STATIC, where’s the MOVEMENT?” until the commentator told us they were still singing the national anthem.

Another option would be to choose deliberately opinionated pundits, so Gary Lineker would say “What did you make of the first half, George Galloway?” And he’d say “This is a midfield as pusillanimous as it is deleterious, its passing not just wayward but certifiably devoid of any identifiable direction, a disgrace to the upstanding heroism of the Cameroonian people they deign to represent.” And Gary would say “OK George, clearly not impressed, but what are your thoughts Dalai Lama?”

This would be an improvement, although inevitably it would lead to Nigel Farage being on almost every match.

But chosen by lottery, the pundits would reflect the concerns, the passion and the excitement levels of the nation. Some of the pundits would cry, some might ask why the one at the back was allowed to pick the ball up, and some might miss the game as they were watching a cat in a dishwasher on YouTube. But humanity would be restored, firstly to sporting commentary and then to our democracy.

Because even flawed humanity is preferable to cultivated nothingness, and seeing this to be true, Ed Miliband would feel free to unleash the tiger inside him that’s bursting to claw its way out.