Football is held for ransom once more as ITV loses the Champions League

There is a reason the sums are so large. They are a ransom

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The Independent Online

He’s only two, my nephew William, but there can be no doubting his talent. As he kicks his little West Ham football round the garden and gives chase, he actively side-foots it, the contact clean each time. He is yet to complete a successful stepover – when the ball comes up to your knee, it’s a big ask – but it is a matter of when not if.

Currently, the chip is his trademark and can be done to order. Fully eight yards they travel, and properly flighted deliveries: think France ’98, De Boer to Bergkamp.

To his dad, captain of his local cricket club and a committed football despiser, it is a matter of serious concern. But to me, it’s inspiring to think that this great and joyous gift, when it rises to its full potential, will be compulsorily purchased by some mega corporation and used to rip people off for their home broadband.

It was fittingly bittersweet that in the end it was Messi’s Barcelona, the finest team to have played the game, who should provide the final curtain call on free-to-air first-class football. When the little Argentine’s goalscoring records, which have stood untouched for three decades, are finally eclipsed by William Peck, the argument over who is the greatest of all time brought finally to an end, his feats will – as things stand – have been bound up in a magnificently complex web of TV, mobile phone and wifi packages.

Last Saturday night in Berlin was the final Champions League match on ITV, the ultimate resting place of an epic football journey, from Roy Keane in Turin, to Oly and Teddy, to Istanbul, to Moscow, to the ball dropping like a stone out of the Glasgow sky and on to the pendulous boot of a balding French genius.

From all those nights when the commentary box became an undisguised Manchester United Fan Zone, the breathless ululations of an ascendant, crescendoing Tyldesley, to the rise and fall of Ronglish: the lollipops, the spotters badges, the full gun, the “little eyebrows” from Scholesy – all that gloriously rich sporting seam now the property of the past tense.

Suarez, Neymar, Messi: the last vestige of terrestrial football greatness.

From next season, we enter the era of BT Sport Champions League exclusivity. It has been described by media analysts as the age of Armageddon, this truly depressing new era when the national game is the sacred ground over which the battle for every TV subscription, phone and internet deal ever sold will be fought.

Yes, on the Beeb there’s still the FA Cup, a competition in which England’s top teams face each other twice a year, if you’re lucky, in a match they’re not overly concerned about losing.

And BT has gone to great lengths to communicate that its coverage is in fact free, that the final will be free to air, but only for those brave enough to pick through the 10 million brain-boiling permutations of Broadband Package A and Mobile Only Package B, Channel Only this and Ultra HD that without flinging their laptop against the wall and resolving just to go down to the sodding boozer and watch it.

Once upon a time, all British Telecom needed to stay ahead of the game was Maureen Lipman and her well-stocked fridge. Now, for some reason, everything must hinge on football – £900m is the price that was paid for the rights to Barcelona and Bayern Munich and the rest, and this added to the £5.1bn recently paid by BT and Sky for Premier League football.

There is a reason the sums are so large. They are a ransom. In the lawless parts of the world, unconditional love is the emotion leveraged by bandits when they kidnap children. Here, football is the only sacred thing you can get away with stealing, safe in the knowledge your unreasonable demands will be met by an addicted public with no real choice in the matter.

Yes, no one has an inalienable natural right to watch their favourite football team on their TV entirely gratis, but for those not prepared to fork out for Sky, or submit themselves to the customer services-oriented misery of switching broadband provider, watching a few ads in return seemed like a fair price.

In the brave new era that will begin with the Champions League qualifying rounds in just a few weeks’ time, if you sign up for every package there is – the full works in full HD – the TV fees will cost you more than a real-life Bundesliga season ticket.

Of course, when William’s old enough to understand, he won’t care in the slightest about any of this. What will terrestrial TV even mean when there will be people living on Mars? But the Beautiful Game doesn’t seem quite so pretty with the weight of half the world on its shoulders.

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