I’M going to stick my neck out, and invite ridicule from the kind of nostalgia buff who insists that things were better in the old days because there was less back pain around then. Here goes: Football commentators are better than they used to be.
This was the conclusion I came to after reading Daniel Gordon’s account of making his 2002 film The Game Of Their Lives, in which he tracked down the surviving members of North Korea’s 1966 World Cup team.
Gordon, writing in Backpass magazine last year, describes BBC commentator Frank Bough being faced with tackling the tricky pronunciations of North Korea’s players in their opening game against the USSR – and deciding to back off.
“His commentary included gems such as: ‘And the goalkeeper rolls the ball out to the full-back, who plays it up to No.8, and back to No.5,’” Gordon wrote. “He wasn’t the only one to struggle with their names, but he was certainly the most public.”
Not even the most amateurish local radio commentator would attempt to get away with something like that these days. (A shame, in a way, as would give genuine ammunition to the proliferation of whimsical Sport On TV newspaper columnists, who must instead fill their word count by making waspish comments about Peter Drury’s fondness for verbless sentences.)
ITV’s Clive Tyldesley, describing North Korea’s opening game against Brazil, and the BBC’s Simon Brotherton, who did their clash with Portugal in Cape Town this afternoon, have made sure to keep on top of player identification.
“North Korea have two players in the squad called Pak Nam-Chol,” Brotherton stated during the first half. One was on the pitch, the other on the bench. “It could get interesting if they both come on.”
A World Cup squad containing two players with the same name? You’d think it had never happened before. (Clue: England, 1986, Gary Stevens and Gary Stevens. Apparently, Korean TV commentators talked about nothing else throughout the entire tournament. Only kidding.)
There has been an air in the British TV and radio broadcasts during this World Cup for North Korea to do well, I suspect largely because of their underdog status. Radio Five Live’s Danny Baker, the champion of the underdog, even took it upon himself to support North Korea during the Brazil game. For him, the highlight that night was not so much Ji Yun-Nam’s late goal, but spotting a banner which read: “Kim Jong-Il thinks I’m at work.”
(Baker suggested that during the game some fans chanted: “You’re going home in a veil of secrecy.” I’d love that to be true.)
North Korea’s football team also brings back memories of 1966, which always goes down well with England fans. Their heroics in beating Italy at Ayresome Park that year set up a quarter-final against Portugal at Goodison Park.
Today’s match was the first meeting between the two countries since then. In their build-up, the BBC showed an excerpt from Gordon’s film, a wonderfully-evocative tribute to North Korea’s Boys of ’66, and how the public of Middlesbrough fell in love with them.
They hadn’t expected to reach the quarter-finals, so North Korea had been forced to find accommodation quickly after going through. They ended up taking over the hotel that had been reserved for Italy – a Catholic retreat called Loyola Hall, which had an adjoining chapel complete with a striking statue of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross. As Gordon wrote: “It was a scary place to be if you were an atheist North Korean!”
Around 3,000 Middlesbrough fans had made the trip to Merseyside to cheer on North Korea that day, and their team were 3-0 up inside 20 minutes. But Eusebio scored four as Portugal came back to win 5-3.
Eusebio was at the Green Point Stadium this afternoon to witness a match which was even for the first 20 minutes. But Portugal could have been more than 1-0 up at half-time – Raul Meireles the scorer. And in the second half, the ketchup bottle opened.
Cristiano Ronaldo, referring to his own lengthy international drought, had suggested that goals would soon flow like ketchup from a bottle. And it turned out he was right, although he had to settle for just one of the six scored by Portugal after the break as North Korea fell to bits.
“I’m not sure if this match will be shown in North Korea now,” said Brotherton, referring to suggestions (which, unsurprisingly, no one has been able to confirm) that matches are being shown on delay, and restricted according to results.
Even if North Korea finish their group schedule with a win over Ivory Coast on Friday, they cannot go through. For the second time, their World Cup adventure has been ended by Portugal. A repeat of 1966 won’t be happening. It’s a feeling England fans have had for a few days.