Sport on TV: A Berne offering that turned the stomach
Sunday 29 March 1998
Such were the surreal thoughts which freestyled through your consciousness as England played out the most disappointing game of international football since the one in The Likely Lads which turned out to have been frozen off. There was also time during the long, aimless spells of midfield interplay to ponder the revolting Swiss kit. Its designers must have thought it a master stroke to add a light dusting of white around the shoulders, reminiscent, they doubtless argued, of newly fallen snow on the very peak of the Matterhorn itself. Instead, viewers were left with the indelible impression that every last male in Switzerland is a martyr to dandruff.
And on the subject of Swiss traditions, rosti cakes are all very well, but was it really necessary to play the match on one? For all the justified complaints about television's influence on modern sport, it might perhaps be an idea in future to send a couple of Sky Sports executives on ahead to judge the state of the pitch, and pull the plug if they feel that the entertainment will not measure up. Who knows, they might even get a taste for the exercise and extend the quality control to their boxing coverage (although not even the most punch-drunk of fighters would be daft enough to bet on it).
So desperate were all the internationals that even the half-time adverts were better, especially the latest production from Nike in which Brazil's Ronaldo bounces the ball off the head of a customer sitting outside a Parisian cafe, who just happens to be Eric Cantona. For all the clever twists, however, this was still a major marketing opportunity missed. If Ronaldo could only have landed the ball smack in Eric's cafe au lait, or better yet rebounded it off the most sensitive point of his Gallic nose, sales of their new boots would have gone through the roof.
Anyone seeking football with a little excitement was forced to take refuge in either the ever- excellent Nationwide Football League Extra (ITV) or the more surreal surroundings of Dream Team, Sky One's footy soap. Football League Extra continues to give the hundreds of thousands of fans who follow a non- Premiership side a weekly glimpse of their heroes, assuming, that is, that they have tracked it down in its graveyard slot in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
In a refreshing, unfussy way, NFLE covers so many games that almost every edition includes at least one strike which would be a certainty for the "Goal of the Month" shortlist were it scored by Alan Shearer or Michael Owen. Last weekend alone, Jan Jansson's curler for Port Vale and Watford's opener from Darren Bazeley were sublime efforts which would otherwise never have received the public airing they deserved.
At Harchester United, meanwhile, goals are rather harder to come by as the side at the heart of Dream Team attempts to beat the drop from the Premiership. So it was that as the transfer deadline approached, the manager, Ian Coates, arrived at Pride Park to sign Dean Sturridge for pounds 5.5m - and yes, it really was Dean Sturridge, and it was also the real Jim Smith who seemed surprisingly happy to let him go. Dave Bassett was in there, too, attempting to sign Harchester's young striker Dean Hocknell for Nottingham Forest as his agent quibbled over a golden hello, match fees, bonuses and what can only be described as a pounds 100,000 bung.
Dream Team is never going to win any awards, unless there is one somewhere (Australia, probably) for the soap opera which tries hardest to overcome impossible odds, like a script which would fail a GCSE in creative writing and a cast with as much star quality as Doncaster Rovers reserves.
It is a measure of their collective abilities that Sturridge's performance was as convincing as any of those by the professional actors, but still only marginally less embarrassing than the contributions from Bassett and Smith. The actor who plays Hocknell must be mightily relieved that his character rejected the move to Forest. If he has any sense, he will slip the scriptwriters a bung of his own to get Hocknell a 15-year contract as soon as possible.
Yet there is also a jovial air about Dream Team which makes it - occasionally anyway - an amusing enough way to waste half an hour. And there are two things at least to be said in favour of Harchester United. First, if their directors were ever indiscreet in a Spanish brothel, they would certainly not be able to compare any of their players to Mary Poppins. (Iggy Pop, perhaps. Mary Poppins, definitely not.)
And best of all, Sky would surely not condemn United to life in the Nationwide Football League - which must make it all the more likely that Crystal Palace will be relegated.
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