Bias in football commentary: England and the 2018 World Cup

By Iqbal Ahmed

The 2018 World Cup is now behind us.  For the most part of the tournament, the English fans were jubilant; hopeful about bringing the game home. The euphoria took on a different level- so much so that the BBC studio analysts might have lost sight of the gruelling reality of winning the Cup.

To this end, this article brings up two points.  First, the whole euphoria about ‘coming home’ is over-hyped.  Roy Keane in his famous on-air spat with Ian Wright rightfully argued that England got carried away a bit with their expectations.

Every nation has the right to hope to win the World Cup, but they have to be measured against the harsh reality of winning seven games.  England had a good, young team, but it was somewhat inexperienced to measure up against the huge burden of winning the tournament.

Every nation has the right to hope to win the World Cup, but they have to be measured against the harsh reality of winning seven games.

Gary Lineker and his colleagues heightened the euphoria, expecting to win the World Cup without discussing the difficulty of pulling off such an achievement.  They failed to analyse England’s strategy- to move to the second round by not winning against Belgium. Had they won, they would have been put in the tougher half with France, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina.

The point here is not to necessarily question Gareth Southgate’s strategy to progress, but rather to make an argument that England’s strategy needed to be deconstructed and discussed, which BBC analysts failed to do.

Another example of bias was found during the buildup to the semi-final, in which the BBC didn’t rate Croatia’s chances to win against England.  They underestimated a good, well-seasoned team, and overestimated a very young and inexperienced team.

Lineker, Shearer, and Ferdinand missed some of the nuances of the English football deficiencies.

During the match, the English defenders and midfielders alike gave too much space to Luka Modrić; one of the most influential midfielders in the world.  He then exploited the gaps throughout the match and troubled the English side.  This was, as Ewan MacKenna argued in an MSN Sports report, not bad football- rather, it was marked by inexperience.  Lineker, Shearer, and Ferdinand missed some of these nuances of the English football deficiencies.

The second point is the studio analysis of Lineker, Shearer, Ferdinand and Klinsmann during the final match between France and Croatia.  They talked about how tough and skilled Croatia were – a change from their semi-final stance.

Take the penalty as an example.  Lineker, Shearer, Ferdinand, and Klinsmann argued against it, but would they have done the same, even having a penalty rule book brought over to the studio, had England been involved?  Take the ‘deliberate’ rule of the penalty – how could the analysts be absolutely sure that the defender did not stick his hand out deliberately to deflect the ball?  After all, the players on the pitch are very, very skilled professionals and they know how to manipulate outcomes within millimetres and milliseconds.

Another example of less-than-critical analysis came with the foul against Antoine Griezmann, which Klinsmann claimed as a ‘dive’.  Further slow-motion footage showed that Griezmann’s leg was touched when he fell to the ground. He did not dive – either his momentum due to the hit caused him to fall or he simply lost control.  Klinsmann, after all, should have known better because he almost perfected the art of diving.

They underestimated a good, very seasoned team, and overestimated a very young and inexperienced team.

Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand, and Alan Shearer are among the most celebrated contemporary football heroes, but they are no longer the stars of the pitch. Off the pitch, they are responsible for bringing the beautiful game to the public, many of whom are youngsters.  Alan Shearer’s on-air rant against Colombia, however, did not portray a football hero, much less a critical analyst.

England will be back in 2022.  But they have to make sure that they are ready to take on the pressure, expectation and reality of winning the World Cup by taking on the tough opponents.  The pundits like Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand, and Alan Shearer need to acknowledge this critically, without any bias.

 

Photograph: Atsushi Tokumaru via PA Images

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