Aidan Smith: Too much football on TV is damaging the game

The greatest-ever goal from the captain of the greatest-ever team as Carlos Alberto scores in 1970. Picture: AP
The greatest-ever goal from the captain of the greatest-ever team as Carlos Alberto scores in 1970. Picture: AP
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The week before last, when the man behind the all-time greatest goal was still with us, I passed my local betting shop with its redundant sign “Ibrahimovic to score”. Manchester United’s Zlatan was in action the previous night but well into the next day I had no idea of the result of a match I could have watched from my sofa. I simply didn’t care.

A day later, with Carlos Alberto still alive, I was at a game at a two-thirds-empty Hampden, the desultory scene partly a result of live TV. Then, a few hours after learning that the towering Brazilian had passed away, I flicked channels to an English cup-tie in time for a goal, setting up what the commentator promised would be “a really exciting last 15 minutes”. But rather than stay up to watch I went to bed.

What have my viewing habits got to do with the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning team? Simply that when Carlos Alberto scored his wonder goal, televised football was rare and special and we watched agog and on that day were rewarded with the greatest-ever hip-swinging dribble by a defensive midfielder (Clodoaldo), the greatest-ever pass of no more than a yard (Pele) and that perfect strike of a ball which – players who glare at the turf to explain away sclaffs, please note – bobbled a split-second before.

Now football is on TV all the time and, if not quite killing the game, then it’s seriously damaging my interest in it.

We’ve reached peak football and don’t just take my word for it. On the day of Carlos Alberto’s death came news of a dramatic slump in viewing figures. The armchair audience for a recent night of Champions League games was down by 40 per cent. Meanwhile, viewership of live English Premier League games in the first few weeks of the season has dropped by a fifth.

The reasons for the decline are so simple that you wonder how clever you have to be to become a top TV executive making decisions on what we watch. There is too much football on the idiot-lantern. We’re fast losing interest in it. The goose that laid the golden football is dying of boredom. The magic, initially glimpsed flying down the left wing, has been dumped into the advertising hoardings by a brutal tackle and is struggling to get back up.

Too much televised football is too much of a good thing. Remind me: when did we ask for all the games? Once upon a time, the beaks in charge of Scottish football decreeing from presbyterian pulpits that the Scottish Cup final wouldn’t be shown live, or the crucial Scotland World Cup qualifier wouldn’t be piped into our living-rooms, would have annoyed us but we didn’t stop loving football. We revved up our radios and took it on trust from David Francey that Eusebio was bearing down on our knock-kneed keeper, and invariably he was.

But all the games is threatening the love. All the games causes desensitisation. All the games makes us expect too much. It ruins imagination and fantasy. It stops us appreciating the ebb and flow of a match, the whims and caprices. We don’t want the full 90 minutes anymore. We get irritated when there isn’t a goal every four seconds, like in those YouTube compilations. All the games has the same effect – so they tell me – as pornography.

The beaks were right. They weren’t punishing us, they were protecting football. Their ancient rule that no game can be shown live on TV when there are others kicking off at the same time still applies to Saturdays at three o’clock, the womb-like vantage-point to which all football fans want to return but never will. Other battles have been lost, though, and last Wednesday night when there was almost a full Scottish Premiership card Ross County vs Celtic was screened. But – get this, TV – all the games isn’t working. We can zip through the moments that matter on Twitter.

After the 1970 World Cup final and Carlos Alberto’s goal, I possibly didn’t see another live game on TV until England vs Scotland in the Home Internationals almost a year later. Did I feel deprived? Not really. I had a vivid shirt of canary yellow and vivid memories of the goal. As Garry Jenkins writes in his book The Beautiful Team, Pele “rolled the ball into his path with all the care of a father coaching his two-year-old son”. The best bit? Aged 13, it was the looseness of the Italy net, the way the rocket made it billow.

That was the brilliant climax to Carlos Alberto’s World Cup. It began with a crisis. The players were left frustrated by the laid-back, uncommunicative coach Mario Zagalo who’d just taken charge, so Pele, Gerson and the skipper decided they’d pick the team and tactics for the final warm-up. Once in Mexico, Carlos Alberto was the consummate politician, charming the locals and handing out paper hats to the kids, in stark contrast to what Jenkins calls the “dour and occasionally paranoid” Sir Alf Ramsey. “We were promised a motorcycle escort,” harrumphed the England manager.

But if there was strategy and cunning and serious intent by the time the World Cup began, these players were still at heart Brazilian. Carlos Alberto outlined the normal philosophy and routine at the training camp: “We would take our cars and say: ‘I’m going out today. I’m going to make love to my wife – she’s waiting for me back at the hotel. We went and came back without problems. Of course no-one would stay out the whole night drinking, making love.”

Didn’t that team play like they’d just been making love? Not that I knew of such things at 13. It was enough that Carlos Alberto struck the ball as hard as he did and in the playground and the park we tried desperately to replicate that, although finding a lad to be as generous as Pele was always a problem.

“I arrived just on time, that’s why the shot was so strong,” he recalled. “At that moment we just exploded, we said every bad word.” The goal went round the world and stayed in everyone’s mind without recordings, replays, social media. Even better goals – if such things exist – don’t stand a chance now.