Sport on TV: Turkeys come early, with Bean's spout on the side

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The Independent Online
Competition, so they say, is always a good thing, but not last week it wasn't. Or not, at least, if you are one of the millions of English football fans who had hoped that their World Cup wounds might just heal in time for Christmas, only for the BBC and ITV to contrive to reopen them twice in the space of 24 hours. "When England played Argentina," as the voiceover might easily have said before ITV's offering, "is brought to you in association with Saxa."

Both this and the BBC's St Etienne retrospective were originally scheduled to air between Christmas and the New Year, when most people could have found a convincing excuse to avoid them. But that was before both sides realised that their scope for variation was distinctly limited - the respective crews which went to Spain to interview Carlos Roa, the Argentine goalie, were apparently on the same flight - and a race began to reach the airwaves first. In the end, ITV won, but only by rescheduling their show at such short notice that even some of Tuesday's newspapers failed to notice.

This, just in case you hadn't guessed, explains why certain features which are generally the norm in a networked documentary appeared to be missing. A tolerable script, for instance. Imagination. Insight. Even one out of three would have been a start.

But they drew a blank on all counts although, to be fair, ITV did not bother with a formal script and let the heads do the talking. This was a wise move, if Passion, Pride & Penalties (BBC1) is any guide, although it should surely be possible to write a commentary for a football documentary without resorting to knee-jerk military analogies.

"After days of speculation and hype in the world's media," an early example ran, "the hopes of England and Argentina now focused on the performance of 22 players on the pitch. It was time for battle to commence." The second half, meanwhile, was "the most impressive rearguard action since Rorke's Drift". The only surprise was that the Belgrano wasn't drafted in when Owen scored England's second.

And if you are going to patronise people with lines which the sub-editors at Shoot! would spike without a second thought, under no circumstances should you hire Sean Bean to speak them. Bean must have one hell of an agent, because he picks up a lot of voice-over work, despite having all the depth and delivery of a tetchy adolescent ordering a Big Mac and fries. "The nayshun was bzzn with antissipay-shun," he intoned over the famous shot of the Queen doing anything but. Sean, meanwhile, seemed to be talking in his sleep.

So on the scripting score at least, it was 1-0 to ITV, but elsewhere there was precious little to choose between the teams. They both had Shearer, Batty and Campbell, in fact they both had Campbell in the same outfit (the interviews, apparently, were done within half-an-hour of each other). They provided, not surprisingly, almost identical quotes. But ITV also had Kevin Keegan. Ah. 1-1.

Then again, the BBC had Mick Jagger giving his magnificently irrelevant view of it all. It was almost worth it for the sight of Jagger in the stands at St Etienne, as all around him the English fans clapped in time to "DA DA DA-DA-DA, DA-DA-DA-DA ENGLAND!" Mick was clapping too, but he seemed to be doing "Jumping Jack Flash". When Argentina got their early penalty, he revealed, "it all went so quiet at our end". Thank you, Mick, for finding time in your busy schedule to share that with us, but really, you needn't have bothered.

So, 2-1 to ITV and, as Keegan would no doubt inform us, in this situation the next goal would be crucial. There was not long to wait. As the shoot- out approached on the Beeb, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" was playing in the background while Bean informed us that "the lion-hearted spirit was still riding high". A verbal cliche juxtaposed with a musical one - it was an own-goal from which they were were never likely to recover. A victory for either side was always likely to be a hollow one, though, after all the schedule-juggling and corner-cutting.

It is not that there is anything wrong with celebrating failure, which is at least something that the English are rather good at (and if they had beaten Argentina, after all, Wednesday's programme would probably have been called Clogs, Tulips and Penalties).

But a more thoughtful analysis might have considered not only football's astonishing ability to grip the emotions of a nation, but also whether, in the coming age of pay-per-view, it is ever likely to happen again. Patrick Barclay, a contributor to PP&P, claimed that, at its best, football has all the artistic merit of cinema. England versus Argentina, he said, was "the Citizen Kane of football". It was rather a shame, then, that between them, the BBC and ITV somehow managed to turn it into The Avengers.

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