Sport on TV: Brazilian gloss after the corporation tack

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The Independent Online
HOW strange it is to think that it is barely a decade since the BBC was the only sporting show in town. Now, its portfolio dwindles almost by the month, with England's home Tests apparently the next great prize on the way to somewhere else, and who knows, maybe most of Wimbledon too. Nor does it help that two of the historic events which remain on their books, the Boat Race and the Grand National, tend to fall within eight days of each other, or that one of the pair grows more laughable by the year.

The Boat Race, thankfully, has already all but faded from the memory, and these days the only way to make it even vaguely interesting would be to inject a little honesty into the commentary. Just imagine. "And at stroke for the Dark Blues is Linus Funkelburger III from Rednecksville, Montana. His IQ is less than half of his body weight in kilos, but his dad gave Oxford $2m for a new chair in Firearms Studies, and he has spent the last four years at St Catherine's reading ... well, comics, mainly." Perhaps next year...

The National coverage, by contrast, was as glorious as ever. Thorough, professional, not too serious, and of course, uncluttered by adverts. Given the right event, Des Lynam and enough airtime to do them both justice, the corporation still sets a standard to which its rivals can only aspire. The National remains our most popular annual sporting event, beating even the Cup final in the millions of viewers it can command. The fact that it is on the BBC undoubtedly plays its part, and if the Aintree authorities want to keep it that way, they will stick with the Beeb no matter how generous the offers from elsewhere.

Sandwiched between the ridiculous and the sublime, meanwhile, were great dollops of football. Planet Football started its run on Channel 4, and Premier Passions reached its rather predictable climax on BBC1, while anyone who has bothered to retune their video could watch Chelsea playing Vicenza on Channel 5. And if any Chelsea fans were puzzled by Gianfranco Zola's rather sluggish performance in Italy, it may well have had something to do with the cheesy stodge which Antonio Carluccio was feeding him on BBC2 just 24 hours earlier.

But if it seemed like there was a lot of footie on television last week, the concentration can only increase as the World Cup approaches, probably to the point where it will be soaps, football and nothing else. In other words, this is a truly wonderful moment in sporting history to be alive, and the build-up to France 98 could be almost as enjoyable as the tournament itself.

When the serious action starts, of course, Channel 4's ratings will go into freefall, so it was a shrewd move to get their retaliation in first with Planet Football, a 12-week dribble through the countries with serious World Cup credentials which started, naturally enough, in France itself.

The centrepiece of each programme will be a game from the domestic league of the country in question, and on the evidence of Paris St Germain versus Lyon, Glenn Hoddle should be a very worried man. Not about the French, however, but the Italians and Brazilians, since you will rarely see three better goals in one match than those scored by Marco Simone and Rai for PSG.

That there was so much to enjoy in this first match was a happy accident for Channel 4, and more than compensated for some of the shortcomings of Planet Football's raw and eclectic team of presenters. Steve Cram, anchorman at the match, was actually quite good, and so too Simon O'Brien, the refugee from Brookie who did the light-hearted supporting items, and Trevor Sinclair. Ian Wright, however, will take some getting used to.

No, it's not that Ian Wright, but instead a representative of Lonely Planet, the tourist guide people, and someone who could give even Barbara Windsor a run for her money in the Chirpy Cock-Sparrer Stakes. As a football pundit, however, Babs would probably win hands down.

Mixing with the fans before the game, for instance, Wright complained, apparently seriously, that he could not understand a single word that a nearby group of PSG supporters were singing.

Anyone with ears, though, could have told you they were chanting "Allez, allez, allez," and just in case there was any confusion, they were also holding a large banner - with "Allez" written on it in big red letters. Wright, remember, works for a travel book company. Next time you go to France, do yourself a favour and take the Rough Guide instead.

Not that many English or Scottish fans will be taking a trip across the Channel in June. The stands at PSG were half-empty, and the France Travel Club could easily hold its AGM dans une cabine telephonique, and yet the vast majority of World Cup tickets have already been sold to the domestic market.

As Planet Football's 10-step guide to getting a ticket helpfully pointed out, many thousands of these will surely find their way on to the pre- match black market. In other words, it is a disaster - or riot - waiting to happen, and it only makes you wonder whether the build-up might not be rather more enjoyable than the tournament itself.