Sport on TV: Red meat, Parma ham and a fistful of cake

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The Independent Online
TO Copenhagen with ITV for the European Cup-Winners' Cup Final (The European Match - Live, Wednesday). 'Copenhagen]' sighed Matthew Lorenzo, presenting. 'City of fairy tales]' And here was a marriage beyond our wildest dreams - Italy's Parma, with their continental silkiness, their flow, their effortless grace; and Arsenal, with their Arsenal players.

A tricky match for ITV to market, this. Given their magnetic attraction to the 1-0 scoreline and their more than occasional use of the 9-1-0 formation, Arsenal are, let's say, an acquired taste, not the most popular side among people without pre-determined allegiance. So in an attempt to snag drifting viewers and stop them turning over for at least 45 minutes, ITV was trailing a competition to be run at half-time.

The deal was: watch Arsenal and win a trip to America to see the World Cup final. Not bad, but doubtless there were some non- partisans who would have required a harder bargain: 'OK, I'll take the World Cup holiday, but throw in a red, L-registration Peugeot 106, a brand new, top-of-the-range Technics stereo and a timeshare on a villa in Santa Barbara. And then I might watch Arsenal.'

The evening opened promisingly, with the arrival on the pitch of the teams, followed by a beautifully lofted, slowly unfurling toilet roll. It looked soft, strong and very long. (I've checked the records and it's actually the first one sighted during a televised football match since Liverpool versus Burnley in 1974, according to the Izal Football Yearbook.)

'Arsenal attacking the goal to the right,' said our commentator Brian Moore at the kick-off, without any trace of irony. Moore used to be a director of Gillingham FC, but on the evidence of his various throaty ecstasies on Wednesday, this was only ever a laundering operation for his Arsenal Fan Club membership fee. It is the moral and political responsibility of this column to out him right now.

Let's face it, any commentator who, as a Parma forward breaks loose, can exclaim (rather sweetly) 'Watch out, Arsenal]' in the high shriek of a man with his fingers trapped in a door, is clearly concealing a red-and-white scarf beneath his sheepskin. If you had seen Moore running on to the pitch at the end, arms aloft, and then pulling Ian Wright into a celebratory headlock, you would not have been surprised.

Beside him Ron Atkinson was having a fairly quiet game, perhaps still smarting from his last trip to Arsenal, when he referred to Paris St Germain's Liberian striker as 'the big librarian'. With Arsenal ahead, Parma threw everything they had into attack. Parma's fans, meanwhile, were throwing everything they had on to the pitch. It was round about then that I started shouting loudly for Arsenal - shouts which redoubled when Parma's flamboyance extended to absurd dives in the vicinity of the penalty spot. Hence, presumably, the expression 'Parma ham'.

Predictability being an essential ingredient of the fairy tale, Arsenal's victory involved just one goal. Busy interviewing George Graham, ITV managed to bodge the moment when the cup was raised - in which this absurd desire to get to the protagonists when they're barely off the stage received its come-uppance. 'Really great for English football that we're now back on the map,' said Ray Wilkins upstairs in the studio. 'We showed what we've got to offer - sheer guts and determination.' Funnily enough, these were the same unadorned characteristics which Wilkins used to lament in Graham Taylor's England side, but there's nothing like backing a horse once it's won.

In Johnners (last night, BBC 2), a splendid tribute to the cricket commentator Brian Johnston, all those offering verbal bouquets were warm and expansive, with the possible exception of Geoffrey Boycott who, in a rather niggardly definition-by-negatives (he felt he should raise Johnston's 'not being an ex-cricketer of some standing'), seemed to be saying that it was all very well being Brian Johnston, but it didn't exactly amount to being Geoffrey Boycott.

Bill Frindall, the stats man, put it best, explaining that Johnston converted the BBC's commentary box (basically a slightly expanded rabbit hutch with a window) into 'a cavern of comedy and cake'. When Johnston died, he said, he knew how Ernie felt without Eric. Hard to feel that television was the right place to commemorate a radio man, but all the greatest hits were played in full: 'Harvey with his legs apart, hoping for a tickle', for example, and the famous 'leg- over' crack-up, which reduces anyone who hears it to weepy mirth and should be available on prescription.

There was something unfortunate in television's treatment of Imola. When the extent of Ayrton Senna's injuries became apparent, the cameras pulled back and the replays stopped, out of shock and respect. Such niceties were not extended to the Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger, whom we saw die again and again this week. He deserved better then; he has deserved better since.