As experiences go watching football, or any team sport, on television and from the stands are totally different things. As different as say, Federer and Nadal, Beethoven and Beatles, Speilberg and Tarantino.
With multiple cameras, slow-motion replays and super slow-motion images, television transforms football into more than a sport often making it a story of agony and ecstasy through expressions. It may not be presumptuous to suggest that some of the celebrations on a football pitch these days are made for television; removing the shirt to reveal six-packs being one of them. This is as up close and personal with a tattooed star -- slicked hair and all --- as you could possibly be. Close-up shots sometimes give you an idea of what the players are saying too: Antoine Griezmann’s celebrations in Spanish in this Euro, for example. And it can help you spot Luis Suarez chomping on Giergio Chiellini.
Television has also given a fillip to the coaches’ pantomime that is played out on the touchlines. A poker-faced Vicente del Bosque or an always-sat Louis van Gaal is as rare as teams playing five forwards these days. It’s been that way since the rule change in 1993 allowed coaches to spout wisdom from the sidelines. So goodbye Enzo Bearzot, Matt Busby and Bela Guttmann and hello, Fergie Time, Juergen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola.
Just contemplating how life would be without football on the tube could make the world seem a gloomier place. But here’s the thing: television individualises what is essentially a collective activity. It makes the Portugal-Wales semi-final in Euro 2016 a Gareth Bale-Cristiano Ronaldo showdown when it is actually a lot more than that. Twenty other footballers, for starters.
Watching football on television would never have got you to see Carlos Alberto Torres make that searing run down the right in the 1970 World Cup final. By the time YouTube footage shows his curly top appearing, Pele had already laid up the ball for his skipper and right-back. The footage also does not tell you, as Torres later did, how Jairzinho drew Giacinto Facchetti, the famous Italy left-back and Franz Beckenbauer’s inspiration to play as sweeper, out of position to create space for him.
Similarly spotting the run made by Lukas Podolski on the left to score Germany’s second goal against England in Bloemfontein (2010 World Cup) would be somewhere between difficult and impossible on television. As would be Lionel Messi’s dropping deep to disturb Belgium’s shape in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final. Messi helped us breathe, Argentina coach Alessandro Sabella had said after that game. So, since television focuses on the ball and its immediate vicinity, the flag being raised for off-side or subtle movements like that of Messi or James Rodriguez moving between the lines for that wonder goal in 2014 becomes difficult to spot.
Sometimes, it also misses events not so subtle. When Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi, the action was near France’s goal and the millions watching would have been seeing a build-up that was eventually thwarted while the game-changing incident happened at the other end.
Then, there’s this whole thing about formations. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, of how in the time journalists depended on the teleprinters to send dispatches, a famous cricket reporter was told that in order to save costs, he should refrain from punctuations in his copy. Just to show how important comas and semi-colons were to him, the reporter only sent punctuations the next day asking the sports desk to write the copy.
Formations in football are that important, again because it is not just about individuals. “The formation is the only thing that’s important. It’s not worth writing about anything else,” is what Jonathan Wilson mentions quoting an Argentine journalist he does not name in the prologue to ‘Inverting The Pyramid’ that seminal book on football tactics down the ages.
Germany coach Joachim Loew changed their usual four-man defensive quartet to three centre-backs against Italy in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. Even perched high up near the clouds, as some vertiginous stadia have it these days, the change in formation would have been noticeable. Trying to figure that out on television would be a lot more, well, trying.
One of football’s oldest saying is that a player on an average has the ball for three-odd minutes in a 90-minute game. So, what the player does when he doesn’t becomes a lot more important and that’s difficult on live television. The shape-shifting variations of a team trying to regain possession are often as interesting as Messi or Maradona slaloming past half a dozen and while the latter can be enjoyed on television, the former cannot. Ditto Argentina’s 24-pass move that led culminated in Estaban Cambiasso’s goal in the 2006 World Cup. That was perhaps as close to football being an orchestra as possible.
And finally, there’s the atmosphere. When Brazil lined up against North Korea at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, it was so cold that the substitutes’ bench had double blankets. A journalist in the media tribune told me that he was typing instead of taking notes with pen and paper just to keep his hands from freezing. Such first-hand feeling is difficult to replicate at home or a pub if you are thousands of miles away.
The rendition of the Brazilian national anthem through the 2014 World Cup would be a difficult act to follow though Argentine fans bouncing through tournament --- the ease of travel in Americas and Europe make that possible in a way it would seem inconceivable to Indians --- chanting how Maradona is better than Pele or the Iceland ‘thunderclaps’ in Euro 2016 would come close. On television, even when it’s first-hand these would always seem at a distance. And being part of the crowd when Barcelona host Real Madrid at Camp Nou with even grandmas standing on seats and abusing the visiting team is an other-worldly experience television simply cannot create.
But thank god for TV because if you have missed something in the game while you are in the stands, you can always catch the highlights.