Tunisia v Saudi Arabia, ITV1
Having signed off from covering Spain v Ukraine a mere half hour before, a screen has been brought down behind Gabby and the boys to disguise the fact that they have been locked in the now empty Leipzig Zentralstadion for the duration. That said, this gambit does at least ensure that rogue members of the punditry team aren’t seen wandering around, investigating their nostrils outside the window. Score 1 for ITV there.
The pretence doesn’t, however, stretch to the team changing their outfits, the boys appearing to have unwittingly co-ordinated their outfits to a cooling pastel blue. Smilin’ Ruud Gullit goes for the sporty polo, but the other two really do appear to have forgotten to text each other before heading out for the night. Still, it's just nice to see ‘Chunks’ Townsend out of his barely-containing doorman-a-gram suit and into some feathery shirt-sleeves.
After the merest of discussions about African football and the performance of the 5 qualifiers in this years tournament, we’re immediately onto their 1966 mini-series, all disjointed and irrelevant black and white filler material. After the first instalment of this, before an earlier game, Andy Townsend described the VT as “great, we all love to see stuff like that” as though he had a gun to his head. Today, we get Martin Luther King, the Playboy mansion and Billy Graham all appearing before we get to the World Cup tournament that we apparently did quite well in that year. Meanwhile 31 other nations decided to compete in this year’s tournament.
After a quick sojourn to the Trinibago gaffer Mr Beenhakker’s press conference, Gabby then discusses the pronunciation of ‘Leo’ with Dutch legend Gullit, on which they disagree, “you say tomato…” giggles Gabby. The uproarious, competitive laughter that then bellows out of both the ex-Kilmarnock striker and the former Welling United dogger suggests that we are in a twin broadcast with MTV's ‘Dismissed’. Mrs. Logan, the choice is yours. Hypothetically, readers, who would YOU rather take home to your mother?
After a break, they cross to Ned Boulting who’s boasting about indulging in a matey chat with Brian Barwick who apparently responded by putting on his dark glasses and saying nothing. Not really sure whether Ned, Brian or we viewers gain the most from that, but we’re soon treated to the sight of John Terry entering England’s Nuremburg hotel without a top on, which he can apparently do “because he’s John Terry.” Back to the studio box, and Ally is baffling everyone with talk of crab sauce and omlettes. Then, while Andy is telling us what Sven WILL do tomorrow and why he shouldn’t, the lights go about above the pundits, Gabby suggesting that the affable Swede was exacting some revenge. Personally, I reckon it was the aesthetes amongst the viewing public trying to tone down the smug amongst our book-ending regulars. Mind you, Moody Ruudi in the middle ain’t too shabby to look at, so that might be throwing the baby out with bath water somewhat. Eh, chaps?
With Spain and Ukraine the favourites for the group, it might be easy to cast this as an early wooden-spoon decider, particular when one remembers Saudi Arabia’s 8-0 gubbing at the hands of the Germans last time out, and Jon Champion suggests just that, although also noting that Ukraine’s result will give great encouragement to both.
“This fixture represents the very essence of the World Cup” says Champion after the anthems, meaning of course that ‘this is one of those games that don’t involve European or South American star names so we know you don’t really care about it’ and promptly leads us into a break so we can make an early escape should we wish to. He also says that both sides are “playing for something tangible, by no means just the makeweights,” as he and Jim Beglin work out the permutations that would see them qualify from the group ahead of Ukraine. Without that heavy defeat earlier in the afternoon, I imagine Champion would sound a lot more bored than he already does. We then catch sight of long-time Saudi #1 keeper Mohammed Al-Daeyea, recently disposed after 181 caps and who, prior to today, had played in every Saudi World Cup game. “Wonder what he’s thinking” Jon asks us. I think I can hazard a guess.
Our man on the mic then sniffily asks a keen Impy Jim whether he expects goals. “Yes, actually” says Jim, stamping on the cynicism. “You’ve put your head on the block” says Jon, from inside a black hood.
Tunisia make the early running, with some fine passing, a little trickery and a decent penalty shout, while their supporters percussive encouragement in the stands sounding uncannily like distant rolling stock. When the ref splits up some handbags in the box, Jon tells us “you can hear the broad Queensland tones of the man from Fortitude Valley” in an attempt to flex his trivia muscle with possibly the most unnecessary piece of advanced research ever undertaken. Somewhere John Motson was reddening at a worrying rate, and not because he’d forgotten to take his sheepy off under the German sun, either.
However Champion is not so well informed in all matters. He describes the Saudi Arabian domestic football league as an “insular world”, and confesses that he doesn’t know much about it (well, “WE don’t know”), an astonishing admission for a man keen to shoehorn fascinating facts in at every opportunity. “Not even Arsene Wenger’s souped-up satellite dish could pick up the Saudi league,” he says by way of excuse. Beglin concurs that to perform better in World Cups they need more continuity in their coaching (i.e. ‘stop having a faster revolving door than Millwall, chaps’), and should try to play European opposition on a more regular basis which, in fairness, does seem a reasonable suggestion, particularly as they are constantly chasing the game in the first half, Tunisia scoring the opener in the 23rd minute, Ziad Jazari making the most of a defensive clearance that hits the back of a team-mates head, scything the ball with an athletic volley into the top corner.
In a rare ‘chance’, Nawaf Al-Temyat strikes one wide from 40 yards, and we cut to the members of the footy-bankrollin’ Saudi royal family, whose eyes roll in unison. Beglin starts to think better of his earlier claim at a goal-fest, “not the most compelling half. If we’re going to see more goals it looks like they’ll be from set-pieces”. Saudi get awarded one in first half injury time, but take so long over it, the ref blows for half-time in exasperation. Champs admonishes their lackadaisicality, “pretty indefensible really to waste that opportunity” adding “that’s their business though I guess” like a kindly, unflappable neighbour catching sight of gimp masks on next door’s washing line.
Into the half-time show. “I hope you’re enjoying this game, but I guess tomorrow’s is more important to you” says Gabby as they cut as fast as their little legs can carry them to more England hype and, in a revolutionary move, have a little natter about Rooney’s fitness. Then suddenly Gabby remembers there’s a game on today by way of sending us into another break. Seems today’s football is merely an elongated sponsors break-bumper for a very short programme that tells us nothing new about England. Good work.
After said break, they give 90 seconds of their time to discussing the game at hand but they clearly can’t wait to get stuck into tomorrow so we return to the commentary box. After 56 minutes, the Saudis equalise, finally getting some sharpness in their attacking play. Their first open play WC goal since 1994 we’re told. It’s a surprising goal on many levels though as the Saudis, despite their forward motion, looked incapable of really penetrating until Noor slid a quality ball to the near post for Al Khatani to meet it crisply and tweak it in the slight gap between the Tunisian goalkeeper, Adam Sandler apparently, and the post.
The game then hits a lull as both teams efforts to garner a vital victory cancel each other out, so much so that the director decides that Saudi keeper Mabrouk Zaid being treated for a knock is of such relative excitement as to warrant a slow-mo replay of the moment when the physio squirts cold water onto his ankle like vinegar on a plate of crinkle-cuts.
As the game appears as though it will peter out in this way, Saudi Arabia spark into life, wrinkly striker Sami Al-Jabar meeting a through-ball that leaves him one on one with Ali Boumnijel, and he completes a fine strike into the far corner that is both composed and a little stumbly. It is also less than a couple of minutes after he stepped off the bench.
With the tempo increased, Tunisia go all out to rescue a point. As we enter injury time, Beglin suggests, having noticed that tall defender Radhi Jaidi has moved up front, that Tunisia need to just “launch it” and they do just that. The ball drops in the Arabian box, Jaziri supplying a deft scooped cross for Jaidi to head an equaliser beneath Zaid’s dive. An astonishing end to the game, but as Jon Champion regrets to remind us, a point is hardly ideal for either side, letting the bruised Ukraine side off the hook somewhat.
Back in the box, the lights are out on the pundits once again, possibly the stadium janitor trying to get the pesky ITV kids to stop hiding in his utility cupboard. Gabby appears quite relieved however that her 2-game “marathon” is over. The cut to Andy and Ally decked out in matching pastel blue Wee Willie Winkie night-caps is sadly not forthcoming.
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse secret word: Rooney (sigh)
Referee (Mark Shield, Australia): Just out of the shower in time.
These things I believe: Tunisian skipper Bouazizi has the most AOR haircut at the World Cup -- German TV directors can be a little too obsessive –- Ukraine still favourites to qualify with Spain, but there are twists to come in this group, I reckons.