Brian Viner: TV rivals slug it out in final battle

Click to follow

At last, four long weeks of football reached a glorious crescendo. This, finally, was what the 2010 World Cup had boiled down to, a head-to-head battle between two teams desperate to find peak performance when it mattered most, one led by Gary Lineker, the other by Adrian Chiles. This was it. BBC 1 v ITV 1. The big one.

There were no surprises in team selection; for ITV, a spine of Chiles, Andy Townsend, Gareth Southgate and Marcel Desailly; for the BBC, a 1-1-1-1 formation of Lineker, Alan Hansen, Alan Shearer and Lee Dixon. On both channels the pick of the early action occurred away from the studio, and it was a particular treat to find Kofi Annan being interviewed by the BBC's Garth Crooks, a mouthwatering encounter between the silver-tongued international troubleshooter, and Kofi Annan. If only Nelson Mandela had also managed to bag five minutes with Garth; it would surely have been the proudest moment of his life.

Both teams approached the contest in similar fashion, beginning transmission at 6.30pm, which gave them plenty of pre-match airtime to fill. ITV, of course, had the Strongbow commercial to fall back on, but Lineker and Co had to play broadcasting's equivalent of keepy-uppy, which they did expertly enough; indeed, Lineker showed his class with a useful early statistic: Spain had won the most penalties in World Cup history, while Holland had conceded the most. Predictably after that, there would be no penalties.

Meanwhile, over on ITV, where the Strongbow commercial had finally ended, Chiles and his colleagues were in a church in Soweto, murmuring reverently. Both channels have shown a commitment these past four weeks, bordering on the excessive, to telling the social and above all political story of South Africa. It is as if they were terrified of being cast as lightweights, only interested in the footie, which really wouldn't be the biggest crime during a football tournament. Still, if ever a sporting occasion demanded an understanding of apartheid, it was one unfolding in the presence of Morgan Freeman.

Eventually, though, there was room only for football, with a bit of karate thrown in. When after 30 minutes Nigel de Jong left his stud marks, and very nearly his studs, in Xabi Alonso's chest, the BBC's Clarence Seedorf was asked for his reaction. It was the perfect opportunity to say "if that was a sending-off offence, I'm a Dutchman". Instead, he gnomically observed that "there's some chess going out there". In which case, we'd just seen the Bruce Lee Gambit. As Chiles wryly pointed out at half-time, even in rugby league it would have been a foul.

On ITV, Clive Tyldesley and Craig Burley got the commentating gig, on BBC 1 it was Guy Mowbray and Mark Lawrenson. As Kitty Muggeridge once said of David Frost, Mowbray appears to have risen without trace, but he deserved the big prize even if he disregards the golden rule (copyright Barry Davies) that a commentator should only ever talk to enhance the pictures. Mowbray never stops. Nor, for that matter, does Tyldesley.

Half-time was about contrasts. In the BBC studio there was puce indignation, with Hansen and Shearer suggesting that referee Howard Webb should have dispatched De Jong and Mark van Bommel. Yet there was goodwill to all men on ITV, where Townsend and Southgate felt that Webb had given too many cautions. Either way, by the end of the match, the referee had waved more red and yellow than anyone – with the conspicuous exception, of course, of 50,000 jubilant Spaniards.