World Cup on TV: Light balls, and the heavy hand of Howe

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The Independent Online
I THOUGHT I understood about the balls, but now I'm not so sure. In the first week, we heard a lot about their unusual lightness. This was used to explain some of the overhit crosses and shots into the upper tiers. I assumed the balls had been bought in a job lot from an all-night petrol station and I decided to relax about it.

Then, this week, Liam Brady referred darkly during the Ireland v Norway game to a 'special new coating' on the ball, which made it sound as though Findus were involved - delicious spheres of plastic with a crispy crumb topping. So what are they playing with out there? It's time someone got one of the things into the studio and cut it open so we can have a look.

This would at least bring a useful scientific edge to the coverage which is suffering in more ways than one from a preponderance of light balls. At least, that's certainly the case on ITV, who are managing to mash up this tournament in ways not thought possible outside the studios of Sky. You wouldn't want to say it was going badly for them, but even Greece have had a better tournament than ITV.

It doesn't help that the channel's frontman is presently odds- on favourite to clinch the coveted David Vine Award for Most Poorly Informed Observation of the Tournament. It came as the Irish looked ahead to the next round. 'They'll be happy to be in Orlando,' said Matthew Lorenzo. Ah yes, Orlando: where the Irish had such a wonderful time against Mexico, where Jack Charlton earned himself a fine and a ban and where it's hot enough to fry the special coating on your balls.

Somehow in ITV's windowless bunker in Dallas, the tournament never quite comes into focus. Take Don Howe's 'Play of the Day' slot. You will be familiar with the domestic television ritual wherein players leaving the field are taken aside in the tunnel, shown a replay monitor and asked to talk us through a key moment or two. Invariably they do so with an endearing mixture of exhaustion and excitement: 'Yeah, there's me] And old Mincey there, he's taken it out to the left . . . And I've come in and just kind of got me head to it and it's gone in.'

Well, these explications are virtually at Michelin Guide standard compared with the deconstructions offered by Don Howe who has, we assume, had a little time to think about it. This week he went for a Klinsmann goal against South Korea, gilding the pictures with the following insight: 'Flicks it up, turns and volleys it into the net. Absolutely brilliant.' They might just as well have a commercial break at these points and make some money if, when we're after the why and the where, all we're going to get is the Howe.

Meanwhile the BBC's coverage motors smoothly into the later stages. Bob Wilson has never looked so relaxed, and Gary Lineker talks like a new man, presumably because he can now speak his mind without endangering his career. The one significant black spot occurred on Monday when the coverage clashed with Wimbledon (a tennis tournament which has been taking place in London over the past fortnight).

Jeremy Bates was on court at the time, playing the annual Wimbledon role of British player who flatters to deceive. Bates, who was a semi-finalist in the Skol Lager Mums and Dads Tournament plus Bring'n'Buy Sale down in Shepton Mallet last month, is having quite a year. On Monday, he was on his way to a routine fourth-round defeat, proving that with a lucky draw and access to the best court, even a British player can trudge meaninglessly through a couple of the early stages. For this we missed the start of Germany v South Korea.

A friend of mine was upset enough to ring the BBC. It took him a while to get through, so he clearly wasn't alone. And I think he spoke for us all when he pointed out to the voice at the other end that someone called Jeremy or Andrew or Buster teases us at Wimbledon every year, whereas the World Cup only comes round once in four. Surely on the grounds of rarity alone, it was the BBC's duty as a public service broadcaster to cut back to the studio at 9pm and cue in Desmond Lynam to say: 'Well, there goes Bates again. Don't know who he thinks he's fooling. Tell you what, let's go over to America for some sport.'

In the event, the best parts of the game came later anyway. I felt sorry for Barry Davies, who had painstakingly researched himself into a dignified fluency with the South Korean names, only for Trevor Brooking to stumble in, confuse North Korea with South and execute a bad height gag. In the end, the honour was Davies's, not least for the line 'such entertainment, such fun' which was accurate about what we're getting out of this more widely, certainly while the ball's in play.

It was, of course, the week fun did for Maradona, a scandal that alert television viewers were in a position to spot early: on reflection, that mad charge he made directly at the camera after scoring a brilliant goal against Greece did look as if it was fuelled by something a little stronger than raspberry Gatorade.