Ken Early: Football more important than life and death? Clearly not

With disbelief suspended football really feels like it matters right up until point that it doesn’t

Denmark players react as their teammate Christian Eriksen receives medical assistance during the Uefa Euro 2020 Group B match against Finland. Photo: Friedemann Vogel/EPA

Denmark players react as their teammate Christian Eriksen receives medical assistance during the Uefa Euro 2020 Group B match against Finland. Photo: Friedemann Vogel/EPA

 

Passing time in the build-up to England’s game against Croatia, I chanced on a clip of the former BBC Radio 5 commentator Alan Green broadcasting from the England-Scotland game at Euro 96. The second half is about to kick off, and as Green welcomes listeners back to the action he makes no effort to conceal his disgust at what he has seen so far.

“Wasn’t that a pathetic first half? Absolutely shocking. I’m afraid it is just a parochial little affair, unless it dramatically improves over the next 45 minutes. Now England have made a change at half-time. Jamie Redknapp has come on, and he’s replacing Stuart Pearce. Presumably Gareth Southgate will drop back into one of the three central defensive roles, and Redknapp will add a good deal more construction to what was a wretched England midfield. Gascoigne, I am amazed that he is still out there, because he has contributed nothing, Steve Coppell...”

Listening to this clip you could feel how much has changed in 25 years. There was something undeniably magnificent about Green’s lordly tone of contempt for all he surveyed. He boomed out his judgments with the unshakeable confidence of a man who knows he’s holding the microphone and nobody can answer back. Commentators don’t talk like this anymore. Is it because they’re spineless - lacking in journalistic integrity and courage? Is it because they’ve forgotten how to say anything interesting?

Or might it be because the audience can answer back now? A commentator who talks today like Green did in that clip will very soon be receiving thousands of variations on the message: “I’m sorry Mr Commentator, whatever your name is, it’s just that I’ve been listening to you tearing absolute strips off these football players for nearly an hour now, and I simply had to ask: who the f**k do you think you are to speak about them like that?”

Within minutes of the final whistle at Wembley, everyone would have retweeted the clip of Green’s confident, wrong half-time take. Then people would have spent the next 10 years systematically ridiculing him for saying Gascoigne should have been taken off at half-time in a match that everyone now remembers for his spectacular goal - still probably the single greatest moment of England football in the 55 years since they won the World Cup.

Media narrative

In truth, Green was merely parroting a media narrative that had taken off since England had started that tournament with a disappointing 1-1 draw against Switzerland. In that storyline, Gascoigne had betrayed his country by turning up to the Euros fat and out of shape. That narrative was consigned to the memory hole (along with Green’s half-time bluster) in the 79th minute, when Gascoigne flicked the ball over Colin Hendry’s head. The brilliance of the goal was elevated by the genius of the celebration - itself a response to the headlines about the squad’s notorious drinking bout in Hong Kong. In 1996 the players who found themselves in the media firing line had to find creative ways to hit back.

The opening weekend of Euro 2020 has been overshadowed by the collapse of Christian Eriksen just before half-time in Denmark’s match against Finland. There were three or four horrible minutes when it really seemed as though we had just seen the best Danish footballer of recent years die on the pitch, in the colours of his national team, during what was probably Denmark’s most-watched TV broadcast of the year. Those watching on TV became helpless witnesses to a succession of images they will not easily forget: Eriksen’s glassy eyes after he fell to the ground, Simon Kjaer and Kasper Schmeichel embracing his devastated wife Sabrina, the medics administering CPR and electric shocks while his crying Denmark teammates formed a wall to block him from view.

Clearly the broadcast showed more of Eriksen’s brush with death than it should have, though it’s easier to criticise these production decisions in hindsight than it is to decide in the moment how closely to follow a developing situation that the production team themselves are only beginning to understand.

As usual, football immediately decided that the show must go on. In 1985, in Brussels, Juventus and Liverpool played the European Cup final after 39 Juventus supporters had been killed in pre-match violence. In 2003, in Lyon, Cameroon and Colombia played out a Confederations Cup semi-final after the Cameroon midfielder Marc Vivien-Foe had collapsed and died on the pitch in the second half. In 2017, in Dortmund, a Champions League game between Dortmund and Monaco was at least postponed after the Dortmund bus to the match suffered a bomb attack that hospitalised their defender Marc Bartra. But Dortmund still had to play the next day.

Choice

This time, at least, the players left the field with Eriksen’s stretcher, and the match was delayed for more than an hour before the announcement was made that the teams would pick up where they had left off, five minutes before half-time. It seems the Danish players had been offered a choice between finishing the game on Saturday night or restarting it at midday on Sunday, and decided that getting it over with as soon as possible was the lesser evil.

Imagine having to play a game in such circumstances. Afterwards the Danish coach Kasper Hjulmand observed that to play football you need the emotions of aggression and joy. The ability to show those emotions in the context of a football game depends on the suspension of disbelief: everyone agrees to pretend this really matters.

The collective delusion is instantly absurd in the shadow of death. Maintaining kayfabe was clearly too much for many of the players. Watching the sad second half was enough to make you nostalgic for times when commentators worked themselves up into ridiculous fits of anger and shouted out things like “shocking” and “wretched” about a game of football - not because the emotions and the words were really justified, but because they weren’t.

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