Sport on TV: A long night from the days of innocence

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FOR Bank Holiday Monday, BBC 2 opened its legs, showed its class and gave us Goal TV: more than five hours of football with one five-minute break - for Chile v Italy from 1962, the famous 'Battle of Santiago' in which off-the-ball incidents easily outnumbered on- the-ball incidents. Like much in this compilation, it wasn't pretty but it was effective. That's how it is with the long-haul game.

Some saw the evening as a radical departure for BBC 2, though of course the channel regularly runs similarly exhaustive snooker theme-nights which go unremarked upon. The point was for all of us to get a World Cup warm-up, and if you were wheezing after one night on one channel, then you're clearly in no shape for a whole month on two, and should probably rent a few videos and put in some hard work between now and 17 June.

Goal TV certainly didn't score direct from the kick-off. We opened with a short piece on the fluid Brazil side of the Seventies which should have been blissful, but turned out to be a highly suspect piece of cultural tourism, asking us to swallow the notion that South American football was 'marked by the rhythm of the samba'. We may as well seek the influence of the windmill and the clog in Johann Cruyff's Dutch side (who were a daring omission from the evening's roster).

There were still signs of early nerves and passes failing to find their mark in Dear Football, a collection of mock letters on soccer matters. Perhaps the problem here was a literary critical one. There is no particular historical connection between football and the epistolatory form ('For publication this autumn: The Complete Correspondence of Rodney Marsh' - you can't quite see it somehow), so for much of the time, you looked on in a state of bafflement, thinking, 'who are these people and why are they writing to God to ask him what football is?' But the slot did redeem itself with a welcome and all-too-brief compilation of clatterings down the ages. Faintly worrying, the pleasure one can take in watching a thoroughly conceived and beautifully executed foul but, as they say, it's all in the game and in some respects the absence of a tribute to Ron 'Chopper' Harris (Chopper's Greatest Chops: it would only have needed an hour) was at least as lamentable as the overlooking of the Dutch.

It took George Best to set the night alight. He appeared in a re- screening of Hugh McIlvanney's documentary from 1970 and though it might have profited us to have a new programme, telling the story since, it's unlikely that it would have taken us closer to the legend at its most legendary. Best seemed at this point to be leading the original double life - but slowly. 'He seems to have a slower psychological pulse than the rest of us,' McIlvanney said mysteriously. The cameras followed George to a night-club and then back to the semi-detached house of his landlady, Mrs Fullaway, outside which sat George's extraordinary yellow car. Basically Thunderbird 5 with wheels, it was larger than the sitting room in which we saw - implausibly - George whiling away an evening making a glue and tinsel picture. Such innocence.

In those days, George could get into clubs without a tie on - probably only because the doormen were so stunned by his skin- tight, round-necked knitted shirt that they didn't notice. Lovely little footballer but, boy, was he bad with spaghetti. At one point, he was hunched sheepishly over a bowl of bolognaise, trying ineffectually to lance the rapidly enlarging string bag hanging from his chin. 'Never dances,' confided the night-club owner. Presumably that shirt was preventing the blood from reaching his legs. No such problem with his United kit.

'It's art,' the singer Mark E Smith claimed categorically, of football generally, on The Ball is Round (narrated by Nick Hornby). But then he had to back-track to exclude Wimbledon. Theory was always going to have to struggle for our attention. L'Etranger worked hard to convince us that goalkeeping was a cerebral affair simply because Camus and Nabokov played there - but so does Dave Beasant, so there goes that idea. In the end, an examination of the iconography of Gazza's tears is bound to look unrevealing beside a clip of Bob Wilson on an ancient edition of Quiz Ball, being jeered by his team-mates for knowing what RSVP stands for.

But just when nostalgia appeared to be romping home, the night closed with a stern collective. Goal], the official film of the 1966 World Cup, turned out to be in mourning for football: 'This is 1966 - the football of negativity.' The era we glow with nostalgia about was glowing with nostalgia for another time again. Things were never what they used to be.

A mystery currently plaguing me: why, in that current advertisement, is Jack Charlton packing all those boxes of Shredded Wheat to take to America? Shredded Wheat is an American invention. You can get it everywhere there. This ad does Jack no favours: it makes him appear to have a slower psychological pulse than the rest of us.