With Euro 2016 now gloriously, and ingloriously, underway (oh, those Russians), it’s time for my two-yearly apology to all dedicated followers of football, for whom this month of international action is just another date in the calendar. For me, as with the World Cup, it’s my chance to take a holiday in football, and lose myself in a sport I take no interest in for two years at a time, and whose irrelevance to me on a year-round, league-based, when-Saturday-comes basis makes Euros and World Cups that much more potent. Imagine the excitement of coming to these players fresh, with no baggage based upon who they play for ordinarily! Imagine the fun of scouring the giveaway Guardian guide to find out who’s who, and encountering all those new names! Imagine – and this will take some imagination – literally not having seen even the older players for two years! It’s like welcoming back old pals – Iniesta, Buffon, Hart, Pogba – and, in the case of a superstar like Gareth Bale, seeing him move about for the first time!
A brief pause to enjoy the poetic beauty of a black balloon floating into view of the camera at the start of the second half of Germany-Ukraine on Sunday. Then it’s back to the action.
I grew up a football fan, although I was never affiliated with my local team, Northampton Town FC, which might have instilled something deeper and longer-term with me. Instead, I allowed other interests like new wave, girls and films to fill my days in adolescence. But in adultessence, certainly since Euro 96 (yeah, beat that for being a fairweather weekender! did I mention my allegiance to the Guardian pullout?), I have gone in hard with the tournaments, devoting myself to watching as many games as I physically can for the duration, and, in the past, writing a layman’s account on my proprietary blog. (I’ve tried watching with beer, with cider, and without either – it’s an ongoing experiment.)
Should you wish to read my previous reports for yourself, I remain proud of my intermittent coverage of Brazil 2014, a single essay during a work-dominated Euro 2012, my essays for World Cup 2010 (a very clever play on words, albeit self-defeating, as nobody spotted it: the tournament was held in South Africa, or SA, or “essay”), and Euro 2008. I don’t see much detailed coverage of the games being produced this year – busy again – but I plan on watching the bulk of the matches, regardless of whether a “home” team is playing. (If there are three in a day, one is likely to have to go by wayside, and it’ll be the afternoon one.)
Here’s what I can write about with partial authority: the TV presentation. As is traditional, the BBC and ITV share the fixtures, and both camps have custom-built studios set up in Paris, ITV’s daringly on a roof with Notre Dame in the background, where Mark Pougatch – a new one on me, he replaced Adrian Chiles last year apparently and he has a fine CV in radio, notably 5 Live – leads the dinner-table conversation with fingers crossed for fine weather. Lee Dixon is a safe enough pair of tonsils, but I’m not following Emmanuel Petit at all. He’s certainly no Thierry Henry. Although I did like the rather roguish Slaven Bilić, a Croatian player now managing West Ham, whom the Mail described as having a “rock star attitude”.
Glenn Hoddle continues to be a nuisance, yammering away in the commentary box in that football-orthodox present tense (“He’s created a space, then he’s crossed it … he’s created some chances … he’s got his head to it”), and I’m not sure the beardy Peter Crouch has the verbal dexterity to turn his practical pitch knowledge into fluent punditry, but at least he’ll be the first to know if it rains.
With half the games on ITV, I keep finding myself having to watch adverts, which is an imposition, although most of them are for betting (“Gamble with money you don’t have responsibly!”, they now trill). I recognised Sky’s Chris Kamara in the Ladbrokes ads, but genuinely had no idea who they’d teamed him up with – even though it was clear we were supposed to recognise him instantly. I looked him up. It turned out to be Ally McCoist. I remain in shock.
I’m telling you, every passing hour of a European Championship brings new gobbets of information – so far I’ve learned that most of the Russian squad play for Russian teams, you can have three substitutions, the referee is now encouraged to “let a few fouls go” in order to improve the flow of the game, plucky Belgium are Fifa’s highest ranked team in the competition, it’s not pronounced “Hazard” (nor is it pronounced “Kroos”), Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden is super-fond of himself, most of the famous Italians have retired since I last saw them, Hungary’s keeper Gabor Kiraly and the Republic of Ireland’s Shay Given are both 40, Bale scored 64% of Wales’ qualifying goals, Polish midfielder Slawomir Peszko has four kidneys, and the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, where Wales beat Slovakia, looks like an air filter.
Oh, and the new Belgium kit makes the players look boxes of matches.
Back to the telly. The BBC team is, as traditional, led by Gary Lineker, if anything looking more body-built than he did two years ago, a man who looks like he’d have serious trouble keeping a jacket on without it sliding down his diagonal ex-shoulders. The goatee now reflects his cavalier attitude to age-appropriate gym intensity. Only Joachim Löw matches him for middle-aged vanity. “Do you think he dyes his hair?” Jonathan Pearce asked Danny Murphy during yesterday’s Ukraine-Germany group match, in a rather metrosexual moment of tittle-tattle in the commentary box (not really very fair to get Murphy into a conversation about hair). I must admit, I’m rather partial to Pearce’s muttering style when there’s no action to convey – he and Mark Lawrenson seemed to spend ages trying to decide whether Irish right back Séamus Coleman had been bought by Everton from Cork City or Sligo Rovers, while the game against Sweden carried on behind them. (It was Sligo Rovers.)
While the ITV table is mounted on a decapitated Eiffel Tower, the BBC studio’s is created out of a collapsing pile of massive cream-sandwich biscuits, like Wagonwheel-sized Oreos with Licorice Allsort filling. The BBC also boasts some spectacular 3D graphics that allows the camera to swing from a superimposed image of, say, Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill, to the seated biscuit pundits, leaving coloured Smarties or tiddlywinks hanging in the air, like jewels in the forest in Avatar.
They also have a retired player called Jermaine Jenas, who’s 33, but looks ten years younger and seems to have wandered into the studio straight off the set of Anthony Horowitz’s new thriller New Blood. It was pleasing to see Neil Lennon, especially in the preamble before Northern Ireland’s valiant display against Ukraine, where he seemed to be the physical embodiment of all that is Celtic. (As a pluralistic supporter of all teams from these isles, I am a three-quarters Celt.)
I’m involved. Apologies if it’s your game. I’ll leave you to it again after the final. I’m thinking the whole thing is a great boost for the “Leave” campaign. Look at all those British nationals swanning across Europe without the need for visas, enjoying the local beer and hospitality! I’m in.