If I were a Eurosceptic …
Those of us stuck at home and unable to enjoy the pleasures of fraternising on the streets of Marseille or Lens have to make do with what we can glean from the TV coverage. Even then it’s possible to get a strong feel for what divides Europe as well as what unites us. France, it turns out, is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
Specifically, the French seem to have a different idea of what action replays are for. British commentators are often at pains to point out that coverage of international tournaments lies in the hands of the host broadcasters. Normally they say this to excuse cutaway shots of nameless UEFA dignitaries or obscure local celebrities. There is less of that this time, perhaps because UEFA is as tarnished as other European institutions and celebrity is increasingly international. But what has been striking is how differently French producers prioritise incidents on the pitch that are deemed worthy of reviewing.
Fouls get shown over and over, regardless of where they take place on the field or how much impact they have on the game. The focus seems to be on the aesthetic appeal of seeing players collide in slow motion. There is a particular fascination with the clash of incompatible body parts: feet with heads, elbows with anything soft and fleshy. Meanwhile, off-sides and other technical decisions get less attention. Viewers who have grown used to Sky Sports-style dissections of the precise geometry of contentious calls – on or off? inside or outside? intentional or unintentional? – have had to make do with occasional replays from the wrong angle or far away. Only back in the BBC or ITV studios afterwards do we get a chance to see precisely what happened, with helpful computer graphics. It’s as though the French don’t care so much about the rules; what they care about is the glamour of personal combat.
If I were a Eurosceptic I would say this reflects the basic incompatibility of our political cultures. Anglo-Saxons are interested in seeing that justice is done. The men in black need to be held to account for their decisions. Arbitrariness is the enemy of the people. The French, meanwhile, seem to take arbitrariness for granted. What they want to know is how pretty it looked. Theirs is an aristocratic ethos dressed up in the trappings of republicanism: noble warriors are shown grappling for dignity and recognition, as proxies for the struggles of the workers. British TV coverage is targeted at the concerns of the fans, who care most of all about whether they’ve been hard done by. French producers seem much freer to set their own agenda, according to their own tastes. No doubt they all went to the same elite college, like their political counterparts: the école normale télévisuelle.
But I’m not a Eurosceptic, so I don’t think that at all. It would be the narcissism of small differences. The coverage of this tournament has been excellent and the little varieties in approach have only added to the pleasure. What I’ve been most struck by is how technically sharp it all is, especially the shots of the incidents that really matter: goals, saves and near misses. It really does look beautiful, as the ball is shown arcing towards its fate from an artful selection of angles. Once upon a time the gripe would have been that tournaments on foreign soil were fuzzy by the time they’d been beamed back to us: just watch Platini’s goals from France ’84 on YouTube if you want to see how much things have improved. The harmonisation of telecommunications standards across Europe, along with some real market competition, means that the quality is pretty much the same everywhere: crisp and true. Europe as seen on the pitch at France ’16 is a pleasure to behold. Off the pitch may be a different story. But for now, what’s not to enjoy?