Ed Miliband needs to learn from Phil Neville. Because Phil’s commentating style was so lacking in passion that the Manaus stadium could have burned down on Saturday, and as the fans fled in terror Phil would have said: “Well, that’s what flames can do. If you leave them unmarked. Quite hot there now. Lots of stuff melting. Not what you want to see as a manager.”
But it’s not his fault, because like Ed Miliband, all of the pundits must be trained to sound boring. Alan Shearer can’t be that bland in real life, he was an astounding player and he’s a Geordie. Maybe at a colder World Cup in Russia he’ll revert to type, take his top off outside, climb up a pylon, drop his trousers and scream “Oy Lineker, I bet none of yer crisps are this flavour man,” before being detained for a year in a St Petersburg jail.
Millionaire footballers can’t normally have conversations in the anodyne tones they employ as pundits. On nights out do they mutter: “Well, obviously he’ll be disappointed to lose fifty grand in a casino, but you know, now he can hire a prostitute and, you know, be pleased for an opportunity to bounce back?”
Even Thierry Henry has turned dull. He looks beautiful and sounds silkily French but all he says is that the team losing will be hoping to do better in the second half. So the best way to watch him is with the sound off, so you can imagine he’s saying “Ah you suggest the striker will hope for a decent cross, but what is hope? Is it that of which we are capable but to which we have never attained, or something more transcendent, beyond our imagination – which may become perfect if he gets in behind the central defenders while staying onside.”
Instead, like the politicians, they seem to think that when speaking in public you should on no account say anything instinctive or with passion, as it may be interpreted as alarming or controversial. So Ed’s ideal interview would be one in which he was allowed to hum the answer “mmm mm mm-mm mmm mmm mm mm-mm mmm” to the tune of New York New York as this could in no way be seen as being soft on the Middle East.
World Cup 2014: The most entertaining and controversial players
World Cup 2014: The most entertaining and controversial players
1/11 Luis Suarez, Uruguay
One of the most controversial figures in football, Suarez most recently made headlines for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic on the arm during a Liverpool game. He is perhaps more famous, however, for stopping Ghana's Dominic Adiyiah from scoring in the final minute of the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals with a deliberate handball on the line – for which he was sent off. Other past misdemeanours have included making offensive gestures to Fulham fans, racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra during a Premiere League match and punching West Brom’s Chile defender Gonzalo Jara.
2/11 Mario Balotelli, Italy
Jose Mourinho once described Balotelli as “unmanageable”, such is the striker’s reputation for being difficult. His well-documented off-field pursuits are diverse to say the least; he has been known to fire air pistols in the open in Milan's Piazza della Repubblica; spend time with members of the Mafia; and to casually visit an Italian women’s prison to "have a look round”. He also famously once set fire to his own house after conducting his own fireworks display. Curiously, he was later made Greater Manchester's ambassador for firework safety and, even more oddly, was also celebrated with a 12-metre tall bonfire effigy of Balotelli was unveiled at Edenbridge’s annual fireworks display. The love life of Balotelli – also known as Super Mario – is a complicated affair. Although newly engaged to girlfriend Fanny Neguesha, he acknowledged that he was the father of his 18-month daughter, Pia, following DNA tests, and is currently fighting for visitation rights with ex-girlfriend Raffaella Fico.
3/11 David Luiz, Brazil
One of the most carefree characters in football, Luiz is best known for his curly mane of hair, which has been likened to that of Simpsons character Sideshow Bob. Pictures of him having apparently shorn off his locks caused a stir on Twitter recently, but the photos, thankfully, turned out to be a hoax. Luiz, a devout Christian, is often pictured with his tongue out and making a thumb’s up sign, reaffirming his much-loved laidback and upbeat reputation. "Even if everything goes wrong, smile!,” he once said.
4/11 Raheem Sterling, England
Sterling hit headlines last year over allegations that he assaulted his former girlfriend after a night out in Manchester. The 19-year-old was cleared of the charges, after model Shana Ana Rose gave "disappointing" evidence in court.
5/11 Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon
Jose Mourinho was secretly recorded recently discussing the age of Eto’o, the captain of the Cameroon team, joking that the Chelsea footballer may be older than everyone thought. Not one to cause a rift, Eto’o made light of the situation and used the corner flag to help prop himself up after scoring in a Tottenham game, in the manner of an OAP.
6/11 Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, Brazil
Brazil’s golden boy, Neymar has been compared to footballing great Lionel Messi in terms of skill, but aptitude aside, he is worth watching for his post-goal Samba dancing. The 22-year-old is quite the mover; his 2011 video in which he danced in front of his teammates in the Santos locker room to the tune of Michel Teló's hit "Ai se eu te pego!" went viral and in 2013 he featured in a rap music video for MC Guime, entitled "Pais do Futebol".
7/11 Chris-Smalling, England
As far as unpolitically correct costumes go, Chris Smalling’s much-documented fancy dress ensemble was extreme to say the least. The Manchester United defender decided to dress as a suicide bomber for a Christmas party, strapping bottles of Jagermeister and Red Bull to his body as an elaborate play on Jagerbombs. He quickly apologised for his “insensitive” outfit and for any “offence caused”. It’s unlikely that he’ll wear anything similar during the tournament.
8/11 Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast
Drogba is on our list for more charitable reasons. He has been credited for having brought peace to his country, after calling to combatants in his native, civil war-striken country to lay down their arms – at which point reconciliation began. A United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador, Drogba has recently urged for more action to be taken against malaria, one of the many missions of his charitable foundation which provides financial and material support in both health and education to African people. He also donates all that he earns from endorsements to building hospitals in the country. So impressive is he that Jeremy Clarkson controversially named his dog after him – probably the least impressive of Drogba’s achievements.
9/11 Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Even for those not into football, Ronaldo’s on-field theatrics are unarguably impressive – ranging from dramatic gesticulation and wild diving to pained, tortured expressions. He celebrated his winning goal against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final in May by ripping off his shirt, flexing his muscles and roaring. His famous self-confidence was demonstrated on a recent issue of Spanish Vogue, in which he appeared naked – his modesty covered by model girlfriend Irina Shayk – in a pose that would make Derek Zoolander look shy. “People are jealous of me as I am young handsome and rich,” he said in 2011, but he recently argued that he has matured since then and no longer feels the same way.
10/11 Wayne Rooney, England
Rooney has received much flak for apparently not deserving his place on the England squad (not that Jose Mourniho agrees), but what would the nation’s team without its hot-headed striker? He has a firm reputation for losing his temper on the pitch and with the press, mainly during the earlier stages of his career. His private life has been marred with a string of infidelity rumours, but he remains married to Coleen Rooney with whom he has two children.
11/11 Raul Meireles, Portugal
Arguably one of the most dapper players in the World Cup 2014 tournament, Meireles is one of the only tournament’s footballers to own his own clothes shop. The midfielder’s love of fashion is no secret; he married wife Ivone wearing matching the same high-end designer Fatima Lopez. Easily recognisable by his bushy beard and tattoos (he once said he wanted to win the “tattoos championship”, he opened a small fashion store in Ermesinde, Portugal, in 2012.
When you see clips of football pundits in the seventies you can’t help but feel nostalgic, because like the politicians of the time even if they were dreadful at least they were human. Derek Dougan would say something like “That was never a penalty”, and Brian Clough would call him an ignorant bucket of donkey sick, so they’d whack each other with sections of the World of Sport logo while Jimmy Hill laughed “come on boys”.
But now everyone’s trained in media skills, until they’re so skilled at media there’s no point in them being on the media as they’ve got nothing to say.
They’ll be teaching it at primary schools soon, so you’ll ask your six-year-old if she ate all the ice cream, and she’ll say: “First of all, thanks for asking me to come into the kitchen to discuss this, mum. Look, I know you do a very difficult job very well and come under a great deal of pressure. But I too face a range of tough choices, and that’s why I’m working jolly hard to go forward in doing what’s best for all of us.”
But as Phil Neville and Ed Miliband are finding out, a clinically moderate tone devoid of emotion is so perfectly designed to not upset anyone, it upsets everyone.
So to start with, football pundits should be chosen at random from the electoral roll, in the same way as juries. This would be a better method than restricting the post to people who watch football regularly, as they would be the most hopeless of all. The commentator would say “So, the match kicks off with England playing from left to right” and the pundit would chip in “Sort it OUT Hodgson you WANKER. I can’t BELIEVE this, nine seconds and we’re not beating Costa Rica he’s got to GO”.
Even before that, they’d yell “COME on England we’re STATIC, where’s the MOVEMENT?” until the commentator told us they were still singing the national anthem.
Another option would be to choose deliberately opinionated pundits, so Gary Lineker would say “What did you make of the first half, George Galloway?” And he’d say “This is a midfield as pusillanimous as it is deleterious, its passing not just wayward but certifiably devoid of any identifiable direction, a disgrace to the upstanding heroism of the Cameroonian people they deign to represent.” And Gary would say “OK George, clearly not impressed, but what are your thoughts Dalai Lama?”
This would be an improvement, although inevitably it would lead to Nigel Farage being on almost every match.
But chosen by lottery, the pundits would reflect the concerns, the passion and the excitement levels of the nation. Some of the pundits would cry, some might ask why the one at the back was allowed to pick the ball up, and some might miss the game as they were watching a cat in a dishwasher on YouTube. But humanity would be restored, firstly to sporting commentary and then to our democracy.
Because even flawed humanity is preferable to cultivated nothingness, and seeing this to be true, Ed Miliband would feel free to unleash the tiger inside him that’s bursting to claw its way out.