England's Negative Alchemy
If there’s one thing this World Cup has exposed even more cruelly than the emptiness of England’s footballing pretensions, it’s the shallowness of TV punditry. The assumption that ex-stars - and Lee Dixon - can talk as good a game as they once played is one we know well enough to avoid in other fields. Artists do not generally make good critics. ‘I want whatever he’s having,’ Alan Shearer said after the motor-mouthed broadcaster Danny Baker was allowed onto the BBC sofa for a few minutes a couple of weeks ago. Baker had delivered himself of a few jokes, a string of chancy speculations and one very canny observation: ‘England aren’t playing well enough to go out yet.’ England proved him wrong, as it turned out, by going out playing very badly indeed, but that isn't the point: as a pundit, with that comment, Baker had done the business. Shearer, though, is a void, as uninspired as he is uninformed. He has nothing fresh or insightful to say about why England failed so miserably in South Africa. Why should he? As an ex-England captain, he is part of a long-standing institutional problem, not its solution. Which is why, at the end of the game against Germany, his instinct was to get in ahead of the tabloids with the first kick in the traditional blame game – England failed, so the manager must go.
TV’s unthinking deference to vacant star pundits is puzzling given the expertise of their audience. Every football fan is also a buff, an armchair tactician and pub philosopher. Yet TV football coverage gives them so little to think about and no one to argue with. That said, the thinness of what’s on offer wouldn’t be so clear if there weren’t such a lot of good stuff elsewhere. The commentators I’ve found myself returning to most often these last four weeks are the bloggers at Minus the Shooting. So far as I can tell, they are a loose international network of friends and contacts, most of whom usually blog about other things - philosophy, politics, music, architecture (all of those blogs look good too) - but have gathered together to think about football for the duration of the World Cup. Recent entries have been about the behavioural economics of penalty-taking, the semiotics of football advertising and why the FA should read Karl Popper. The contributors have a good eye for a link, too: Mark E. Smith of The Fall explains why he should be managing England, and ex-England star John Barnes (where is he when the BBC needs him?) argues that the national team needs to be more socialist in its outlook. One of the contributors, Mark Fisher (a.k.a k-punk), has focused the ‘negative alchemy’ of the England shirt, its ability to turn good players miraculously into bad. Fisher has persuasive things to say about why England fail. Such a shame that so far as the FA are concerned, he may as well be talking to himself.