There’s a perception that working in the media is glamorous, especially when it comes to covering massive cultural and sporting events. Well, my first involvement with Glastonbury as a journalist was live-blogging it from an office, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be bringing you coverage of the World Cup from my kitchen. As someone who is, according to Qatari World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman, “damaged in the mind”, this is probably for the best.
Usually, watching the home nations from the home nations during big tournaments means bagsying pub‑garden tables alongside fans with England flag face-paint sweated off into strawberry swirls. The Tartan Army teaming tracksuit tops with kilts. Wales supporters quoting Michael Sheen’s rousing speech from A League of Their Own. And, though we’ve collectively tried to forget, observing men with flares up their arses.
Not this time. This time, despite being indoors, I am watching the football wearing a beanie hat. It is dark outside. In Doha it is 28C; here it’s 7C. But, though much about this tournament is unfamiliar, one thing will never change: the great BBC versus ITV debate. Which has the better title credits? Who are the best pundits? Will a co-commentator butcher a player’s name to levels not seen since John Travolta called Idina Menzel “Adele Dazeem”? It’s a competition in itself. The ad-free Beeb often routs its commercial rival, but Euros 2020 (aka Euros 2021) saw a standout ITV performance – though was thumped in the viewing figures when the broadcasters went head-to-head in the final.
On Monday afternoon the BBC brought us England’s debut against Iran, although the channel’s coverage had kicked off on Sunday with the tournament’s opening ceremony. Or rather, not with the tournament’s opening ceremony – which was relegated to iPlayer.
Instead Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Alex Scott and Ashley Williams focused on criticism of the host nation. The rife corruption surrounding its bid; the abhorrent treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums; LGBTQ and women’s rights, or lack thereof. Lineker’s will probably be the most shared opening monologue since Emily Maitlis’s Newsnight evisceration of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Naturally, many on Twitter bemoaned that Lineker and co, employed by the British Broadcasting Corporation, were hypocrites for “taking the Qataris’ money”. Which once again makes me consider that universal franchise should be replaced with some kind of basic aptitude test.
For the England game it was Rio Ferdinand and Micah Richards who joined Lineker and Shearer on the tournament’s muted set, decorated white and what I would describe as burgundy but people will email in to say is maroon. A complete contrast, then, to the title credits produced by Edinburgh-based Studio Something who presumably were all off their face on drugs at the time. I quite like them. They’re raucous and boldly coloured, and a grinding chant of HERE WE GO means that every single grandparent in the country will mute them instantly. Speaking of noise, thankfully the squeaky chair issue of the previous evening had been fixed.
The big talking point of the day was how Fifa had threatened teams who had planned to wear the OneLove armband with a booking – clearly Gianni Infantino no longer felt gay. The teams backed down. Scott displayed class when she wore the armband pitchside at half‑time, talking to Kelly Somers. (Never mind that the OneLove armband is quite crap – just wear an actual full-rainbow armband if you want to show solidarity; but to then not wear it because it might be punitive, which is literally how sticking to principles work, is quite something)
Guy Mowbray and, in my opinion, the unfairly maligned Jermaine Jenas were in the commentary booth, and did well given the game was stopped for approximately 94 hours when the Iran keeper Alireza Beiranvand was left prone on the turf after a horrific clash of heads with his defender. Mowbray winced and declared: “I don’t think we need to see that again”, as the director replayed it from four angles. The rest of their job – and that of the in-studio gang – was a doddle, given that England scored an excellent six goals and put in a good performance all round.
ITV made its bow with the day’s second fixture: Senegal against Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands. I watched on ITVHub which – along with people who write “thank you” as one word – has served as the bane of my existence. I don’t really know about the sort of torture metered out to dissenters in various autocratic countries around the world, but forcing them to watch ITVHub would be a good shout. This time, however, it worked fine for me, and a source tells me (ie, my friend Josh) that the newer, sleeker ITV X also behaved.
ITV’s titles were kind of sweet, if a bit random. An animated sequence of teams making their way to the desert, variously via rowing boat (England), super‑yacht (Cristiano Ronaldo, obviously), horses, hot air balloons etc. In reality, it has been private jets flying to an event which has a carbon footprint of 3.6 million tons. The studio set design had continuity from the titles, bringing over the hot air balloons to its backdrop. But the balloons over undulating sand dunes was giving Windows screensaver vibes, or the pre-set photos on a Canon.
Laura Woods, hosting, was joined by Nigel de Jong, Ian Wright and Gary Neville (who has had criticism for taking actual Qatari money for his work with BeIn Sports). All were proficient analysers before kick‑off and at half‑time, but the real treat was the commentary. On duty were champion duo Jon Champion (sorry) and Ally McCoist. Champion and McCoist team up for the odd Premier League game on Amazon Prime, and they are an indefatigable joy. McCoist is so enthusiastic about everything, has such golden retriever energy, that, during what was objectively a game drier than the Khor Al Adaid, Champion ventured so tentatively: “I know you’re enjoying the nuances, but am I allowed to say it’s been slightly pedestrian?” McCoist conceded that it had been.
To wrap up, and sticking with ITV, Gareth Bale led the charge for Wales against USA. Two teams who had also broken their pledge to wear the OneLove armbands. Bravo for Eni Aluko’s pro-take on the armband, and for Roy Keane who, when asked by the host Mark Pougatch about the situation, said: “I think the players could have worn it for the first game, that would have been a great statement.” Also in the studio was the former Welsh international Hal Robson-Kanu, with Clive Tyldesley and John Hartson on comms. Perfectly serviceable on an evening which brought a 1-1 draw for Rob Page’s men, but a bit of a comedown after the exuberance of McCoist.
If this World Cup feels weird and uncomfortable enough as it is – and here it should be made clear that Qatar isn’t the only nation that treats migrants appallingly, hello to Southampton fan Rishi Sunak – the experience of watching on the sofa with a hot water bottle and an Earl Grey tea, instead of a deck chair and a cool glass of something clinking with ice, just isn’t the same. McCoist would still be happy, though.
• This article was amended on 23 November 2022. Michael Sheen gave his rousing speech for the Welsh football team on A League of Their Own, not The Last Leg as an earlier version said.