Monday, 28 March 2011

Player Prejudice: The blinkered nature of football coverage

Apologies for my prolonged absence from the site but hopefully something resembling regular blogging will now return. I have been tempted out of my month break from writing any posts by a growing displeasure at certain aspect of football coverage so further apologies for the negativity of this latest piece.

We, as football fans, are naturally highly subjective. We often have preconceived ideas about teams and players which will inevitably detract from our ability to make fair and accurate judgements. This unavoidable instinct extends beyond simple, negative prejudices against rival clubs or unpopular players, often it is applied in a positive manner as we lavish praise on someone’s performance when it really is not warranted.

To put it another way, as a football community we see certain players in a certain way and any judgement that we may cast about them is distorted by the lens through which we like to view them. The prime examples of this of late are Jack Wilshere, Gareth Bale and Neymar. Now I am not, of course, suggesting that these are not exceptional talents. They most certainly are. Their reputations as such, however, results in a complete fixation on them by journalists, commentators and fans alike.

When these players step onto the pitch every touch they take, pass they complete or bit of skill they show is met with cries of brilliance. Obviously logic would suggest that as these are extremely talented players, it is to be expected that they will provide us with these moments that are more worthy of praise. There is truth in that. Yet I have seen Wilshere complete a five yard pass and be compared with Xavi and Iniesta while Gareth Bale can bumble his way past a defender and be called the best winger in the world. Too often these players just can’t put a foot wrong.

Some off-the-field misdemeanour may alter our opinions of them but until that point such players are heralded as demi-gods. Nothing they do is by luck; everything is a moment of perfectly planned, expertly executed genius. This works the other way round too. Football is littered with its collection of villains and comical characters that are scrutinised for their slightest mistake so that it can be put in super slow mo and over-analysed by pundits after the game. Coverage of this type leads to misleading and inaccurate portrayals of the game, acting only to exacerbate the preconceptions we have about those who play it.

Had Gareth Bale played on the same pitch as Wilshere on Saturday afternoon it is quite possible that Chris Coleman would be harbouring a never-subsiding erection today. Bale could have stood on the pitch and done little more than make a couple of jinking runs or dangerous crosses and there still would have been a montage made to commemorate his performance. The problem with this tendency is that it makes football coverage painfully predictable and repetitive.

Match of the Day have their weekly script virtually written for them. It will feature footage of Blackpool’s adventurous attacking play, Arsenal’s defensive frailties and Stoke’s long throw. These things are as certain as Mark Lawrenson’s tone is monotonous. These things become innate within our understanding of the game, they are inbuilt into how we watch and talk about the game. As such we approach every match with an expectation of what we will see and by doing so further pander to the stereotypes that are endlessly repeated to us.

The example of Neymar in Brazil’s match against Scotland exemplifies this point. Again, it is important to stress that I am not trying to discredit him as a player. Yet there was so much hype before the match about him and so much focus on him during the match that his performance was never going to be judged purely on its own merits. His performance was impressive but to call comparisons with Pele and Ronaldo premature would be an almighty understatement.

Teams are categorised, players are pigeonholed and we as fans are forced to watch football through the predetermined views of the broadcasters, commentators and pundits. If you look hard enough then you will see what you want to see. As such, football matches become broken down into clichéd side shows.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please…


  1. Just like so many forms of media, it's so easy to create a narrative around a subject (ie. a player) and only select the relevant points that fit that pre-decided narrative.

    Football Coverage is made for the masses, and as specialist 'footballphiles' - it would be nice to have an option to select interesting, insightful coverage..but who would actually be able to provide it?

  2. If your a fan of Charlie Brooker,and screenwipe, you may have seen the episode in which he explained how new stories are fabricated into some kind of narrative to drive the story and to, in turn, engage the viewer.

    The same goes for football. I glanced at the Sun today and they turned Scott Parker into some sort of vindicated hero; wrongly left out by Fabio in the past, he is now a national treasure overnight - putting in a Man-of-the-match performance despite the death of his dad.

    Admittedly, his performance was good,considering his emotional situation - and I admire him for that - but the Sun have used this emotion strand to sell papers and isn't that wrong?

  3. This works the opposite way round for marginalised players as well. Balotelli can't step on the pitch without having his every action interpreted as the actions of a madman, for instance. you should write with anger more though it's very entertaining, particularly the comment about Chris Coleman's erection.

  4. Good to see you back, Dom. Agree with every word, though many fans are just as bad as the pundits (perhaps because they dig no deeper than what they're presented with on MOTD). Joey Barton - without doubt one of the top 4-5 best midfielders in the Premier League so far this season - can, apparently, do little more than launch hit and hope crosses onto a giant centre forward's head. Likewise Bale is the best player in Europe on the back of a handful of (admittedly mighty impressive) performances, when most regular Spurs fans would probably contend that he isn't yet even the best player at their club.

  5. Cheers for the comments.

    Oliver, you are right - the problem with criticising football coverage (as has been a growing trend of late) is proposing a solution, something I have not even attempted here. I think it is just a question of having people who have strong opinions and in depth knowledge of the game and thus are less likely to merely conform to the predictable lines we hear week in week out. They may dare to break from simple stereotypes we are constantly fed or even debate certain topics. I think the Guardian's The Football Weekly podcast is a good example of this. It is sensible talk by people who have researched the topics.

    James, sports writers are particularly bad at applying narrative frameworks to stories. Whether it be an underdog story or a simple portrayal of heroes and villains, they love to use these models to sex up a story. I wouldn't say what the Sun did in this case was wrong but it is an example (perhaps different to what I was specifically touching upon in the piece itself) of somewhat lazy journalism.

    Charles and Michael, you are both completely right. As I say, commentators and journalists love a good villain and they will always view them through that lens, thus distorting every action and waiting for them to do something which will adhere to the view they like to have of them. Barton and Balotelli being prime examples of this. As both a fan and a writer I know I have been guilty of doing just this. And Michael I think that both Van der Vaart and Modric have both been more instrumental in Tottenham's success this season as, like you say, Bale has only put in exceptional performances on a handful of occasions.

  6. Imagine reading the collective London media orgasm regarding Bale when one is an Inter supporter. Maicon was apparently "torn to shreds" and "humiliated" and yada yada and blah blah blah. Was Bale impressive? Clearly. Did he score his San Siro goals when Spurs were already down by 4 goals? Yes. Does Maicon have 18 more trophies in his case than Bale? Yes. Did the soon to be gone Rafa think it was unimportant to have Zanetti or Cambiasso get in Bale's way occassionally at White Hart Lane? Apparently. Find any reference to these minor details in the UK Spurs v Inter media coverage.

  7. You are right we are quite blinded for fanaticism to our team and everybody else are worse.


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