World Cup TV Pundits Review: The Newbies

In their second review of the pundits and co-commentators working in this World Cup, John Nicholson and Alan Tyers look at some of the less familiar faces...

Last Updated: 25/06/14 at 16:39 Post Comment

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It feels like there is a new broom in international football: the intellectual but bloodless tiki-taka of Spain torn apart, and a series of pacy, exciting, vibrant and attacking teams putting in some fantastic performances. Better still, some of the more enjoyable teams in the tournament so far - we're thinking Colombia and Chile, and even Costa Rica and Mexico - are not drawn from international football's traditional top table.

It might be a bit much to see the punditry and co-commentary work of your Rio Ferdinands and your Danny Murphys as a revolution but, in a small way, we detect positive signs of fresh air blowing through the corridors of the BBC and ITV.

Rio has made an excellent start to what will no doubt be a long relationship with the BBC. His analysis has been solid, and he has also succeeded in one of the hardest bits of the job: giving the viewer a sense of what it actually feels like to play in these matches. For instance, he revealed that playing against Sergio Busquets involves dealing with the loveable Barcelona man constantly sledging you, trying to unsettle you at all times by questioning your ability and your team's methods. He also spoke interestingly about the mental tiredness that comes with marking Lionel Messi or other great players and the constant tactical dilemmas he gives you. Rio speaks with heart and feeling, and we've enjoyed him a lot.

Danny Murphy has also made decent contributions, has a good line in dry wit and has offered acute insights on players with whom he has trained and played with or against, not afraid to be unflattering on occasion, such as his thoughts on Georgios Samaras. He's given the pro's eye view - exclaiming "good foul" during Spain v Chile, for instance - without seeming too mired in the old pro club. Did blot his copybook a bit with a "you look at Costa Rica v Greece in the last 16 and you think, if only England..." If only England had won a match, maybe?

Kevin Kilbane has been good. Handed one of the less glamorous assignments, Nigeria v Bosnia, he nevertheless had things to say about the players. For instance: "Sejad Salihoviæ gets forward, he's a good attacking full-back and part of that great Hoffenheim side in Germany. Hoffenheim are an excellent side to watch, they are very poor at the back in fact, but great going forward." Sometimes the more entrenched pundits do not give the impression that they have bothered to do even enough research for a couple of sentences' worth of material. Maybe familiarity with the job breeds contempt for the viewer?

Somebody feeling no contempt at all at the moment is Thierry Henry, who is now surely all-but universally loved and fancied in British homes. He's played the role of the cool, affable but slightly detached foreigner beautifully and the only sadness is that we cannot keep him. Call us Thierry, yeah? Ah, he won't call. He's too cool.

Brad Friedel has been a welcome, granite-like presence and good value on the USA games. A discussion of players he'd played with or against included both Maradona and Messi, and he brought some of that huge experience and longevity of career to bear with his firm, harsh but fair critique of his national side after the Portugal last-minute gut-punch. Neil Lennon has not made a huge impression on us but seemed solid and did at least manage to get out of the studio without getting clocked by Alan Shearer. There was some top-notch manly bantz about the elbow incident, in case you weren't wondering.

So that's the good. And the bad? Phil Neville, of course, has had a fearful amount of stick and one has sympathy. As always with these things, people online go completely over the top. The basic criticism - that he has a boring voice - should, however, have been identifiable beforehand. Once again it's the senior TV producers, powerful but anonymous, who deserve criticism for hiring people obviously unsuitable for the role. Hard not to shake the feeling that they thought, "Well his brother's good so he'll probably be alright as well..."

For us the major let-down so far has been Fabio Cannavaro, whose English is quite simply not up to the job. Admittedly nor is Wrighty's, but we've kind of got used to that. Fabio has given it a good shot and seems like a pleasant man but, sadly, just cannot communicate his ideas. This in turn leads to vaguely cringeworthy chats with Adrian Chiles that are pretty much of the level of talking to foreigners on holiday and just going "Si...Ronaldo very good player...er bonjour er ciao also Maradona? Yes? The best. Very good player," and doing a lot of shaking hands and clapping each other on the back. Fab has had to struggle through in a foreign language with the added impediment of Adrian kissing him on the bottom at all times, which must also be a distraction.

So overall, a lot to enjoy from the newer faces. Just as the World Cup may well end up with a dull final between two of the traditional powers, once the Premier League gets going again it may be business as usual with the same lazy golf club usual suspects saying the same old sh*t.

But for now at least, on the pitch and on the mike, it feels like new blood is getting a chance. And if nothing else, that has worked better on TV than it did for the England team...

Next week: How have the old lags got on?

John Nicholson and Alan Tyers

Check out John's new series of crime novels about life, death, sex and UEFA Cup football.

Or Alan's illustrated sports books here.

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