World Cup: The bland, the blinkered and the bleedin' obvious

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The Independent Online
WHEN the viewing figures arrive for the opening game of the World Cup, they will probably show that most of the planet was watching, but the truth may be rather more complicated. For while it is quite possible 5,000 million or so people may have tuned in on Wednesday afternoon, those among them who were unfortunate enough to catch the opening ceremonials will have felt an almost irresistible need to spend the next two hours lying down in a darkened room.

Still, at least we now know what all those French farmers have been doing for the last few years when they were not blockading the autoroutes. They have been forcing Oompah-Loompahs to mate with Teletubbies to provide a suitable cast of freaks for the pre-tournament extravaganza. Strangest of all, though, was the thought that all this stilt-walking, trampolining and artless symbolism was presumably designed to convey the essence of France to an expectant world. True, there was an overweight acrobat to represent the Gallic love of rich food, and 300 people in full radiation suits as a reminder of President Chirac's passion for nuclear testing, but this was probably not quite the intended message.

Certainly, Barry Davies had not the faintest idea what to make of it all, though his many years of experience at figure-skating championships came in handy as he swiftly sank into auto-burble.

There were, he said, 1,500 zips on the plastic "lawn" that the freaks were holding aloft, "which will take some beating as the most useless statistic of the tournament, though some might try." Who could he possibly mean?

Once the Styrofoam monstrosities had departed the stage - probably to be slaughtered and pan-fried with garlic - it was time at last for the big match-up, the first of 30-odd meetings between the Lynam Lions and the Wilson Casuals (aka Bobby's Boyz).

And there was a shock early blow from the ITV underdogs, whose studio appears to be in the very shadow of the Eiffel Tower, whereas Des and company, to judge from their view, are languishing on the wrong side of the peripherique. That small hiccup aside, however, it was soon one-way traffic.

There is a dreadful problem which afflicts football pundits, one which even their best friends are loath to tell them about. It is BO - an obsession with the Bleedin' Obvious, and while the BBC's Trevor Brooking has quite a bad case, it is nothing compared to the galloping BO over in the ITV commentary box whenever either Kevin Keegan or Ron Atkinson is in residence.

A side pushing up in search of an equaliser will leave gaps at the back, it seems. And that defender on a yellow card will have to watch his step from now on. Well, would you ever?

And as if the BO was not bad enough, there was simple, unforgivable ignorance back in the studio. Even the awfulness of John Barnes's shiny shirt could not distract from his comment that Argentina - his tip for the Cup, no less - have two great players in Ortega and Batistuta "and nine journeymen from Argentina". Perhaps he would care to count them as they trot out to face Japan this afternoon, when almost the entire starting line-up will be from the expensive end of Serie A.

Nor was there any improvement when ITV's big-money signings Frank Skinner and David Baddiel kicked off Fantasy World Cup Live, a transplant of their BBC series right down to the last sad fan in the audience.

There are three definitions of "crude" in an average dictionary - "vulgar", "in an unrefined state" and "lacking care or skill" - and the boys notched up their hat-trick within minutes. Of course, if they - or their audience - really think that jokes about dead babies, battered women and beavers are funny, that's their problem, and we can always hit the off switch. What is really irritating, though, is that some items are genuinely amusing, "Phoenix From The Flames" with the Zairean defender who walloped away a Brazilian free-kick in 1974 being a case in point. All the self-satisfied tat in between, unfortunately, renders the whole exercise unwatchable.

At the other end of the seriousness scale, Panorama (BBC1) made a bold pass at Joao Havelange and his autocratic 24-year term as president of Fifa. The charge sheet included corruption, nepotism and the prostitution of the game to suit the whims of its corporate sponsors, and the evidence was compelling, though it was a little too ambitious a project to be contained in just 40 minutes.

Nor was it really the sort of depressing analysis anyone wanted just 48 hours before the big kick-off. Far more uplifting was last night's film on the difficult path which the Reggae Boyz (C4) have beaten to France. No dramatist would dare to invent characters like Captain Horace Burrell, the pistol-packing president of the JFA, or Walter "Blacka" Boyd, the wayward striking genius with a very worrying glint in his eye. Or, for that matter, Pompey's own Fitzroy Simpson, an infectiously good-humoured midfielder who reckons that the World Cup could make him a star.

As it happens, it already has.

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