This week Andy Townsend railed against the ‘so-called World Class players’ of Inter Milan. So called by whom Andy? You? Indeed.
Normal people (you, me and the man in the pub) don’t really talk about ‘World Class players’. We talk about good players and bad players, players we like and players we don’t. The class system is an invention of the pundit, and Townsend’s ‘so-called’, inadvertently I’d imagine, brings into question the pundit’s role in establishing the lexicon of football.
Essentially, this is a self-serving anthology of clichés and euphemisms designed to keep the pundit on television. I don’t need Alan Shearer to tell me that Richard Dunne ‘should have done better’ than shanking an attempted clearance into his own net, but that seems to be his job. In order to hide the complete superflousness of their profession (illustrated by the above example), the pundits seem to have established a strange sort of code of meaningless that allows them to sound like they are very knowledgeable and espousing absolute sense and wisdom when in fact they are saying very little, of anything, at all.
The founding principle of the pundit’s code is that there is some objective realm in which an ideal form of football exists. I don’t think Messrs Shearer, Townsend, Hanson et al see it quite these Platonic terms, but much of their jibber-jabber rests on this sort of assumption.
The recent Rooney furore has borne this out nicely. Rooney is a great example of a ‘so-called World Class player’. No doubt Rooney is very very good at football, but he has only scored one goal for Manchester United since March (and it was a penalty, there is at least some chance that I could have scored it and I am certainly not World Class). Yet, if you were to take a straw poll in each of the three main punditry stables (ITV, BBC, Sky) a vast majority (if not all) of the pundits would class Rooney as ‘World’. No doubt many of them, if pressed, would justify this by recourse to a staple cliché of the game relating to the permanence of class vs. the temporariness of form. In other words, form is a fleeting imitation of the ideal of class; or, real-world Rooney is a paltry shadow of the other, ideal Rooney who exists in a Platonic realm of the forms.
The problem with this, according to Plato, is that we can’t actually see such ideals. Stuck in our cave, we see only the puffing, sweating Earthly version of Rooney; we need the philosopher (or in this case the pundit) to describe the glorious ideal of the hulking striker with the great first touch, glorious range of pass and deadly shot to us. Evidence suggests insight like this is beyond the Match of the Day sofa.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Some punditry is great. Pundits like Gabrielle Marcotti on ITV’s Champions League show is interesting and informative because he is intelligent enough to talk about the real world in which football is played without resorting to meaningless and ill-conceived cliché. James Richardson is fantastic as the anchor to The Guardian’s ‘Football Weekly’ podcast because he makes good jokes and because he makes people justify what they say.
On Saturday’s Match of the Day, Alan Hansen said: ‘I’ve said it many times before that the mark of a great team is that they win when they play badly’. He was talking about Chelsea, who beat Wolves 2-0 without playing brilliantly. Sunderland were absolutely terrible in beating Aston Villa 1-0. Does that mean that Hansen thinks Sunderland are better than Chelsea? I wish he’d been asked.