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Slaven Bilic shines but it’s never all
At times like these there are two choices available. The first is to get very cross with ITV. But that seems less fun than option two, which is to roll one’s eyes, shake one’s head and embrace the beleaguered broadcaster’s mesmerising inability to host a major sporting occasion without committing an unforgettable faux pas, no matter how hard it tries to stay professional.
Of course, there will have to be an inquest after the serious business of viewers watching the opening game of the World Cup on ITV’s website being shown adverts instead of the first 30 seconds of Russia v Saudi Arabia. Oh, ITV! How could you? There will have to be an apology, a vow to improve. Some unfortunate lackey will have to be hauled over the coals. Someone must pay. No mercy.
Yet at a time when many television companies show little regard for tradition, there was something oddly comforting about the channel that treated HD viewers to a car advert instead of England’s opening goal at the 2010 World Cup rolling
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out one of the old classics. Some things never change, even if there had been little hint of the farce to come at the start.
It was all so polished at first. A ballerina spun on her toes to the sound of Swan Lake. A bearded man who may well have played one of those weird Georgians in Peaky Blinders peered into the camera and the excitement rose as the Russian‑flavoured opening credits rolled. So far, so elegant. There was much to whet the appetite.
Who were they kidding, though? It could not last and sure enough, as the strains of Tchaikovsky faded out, it started to get strange. A hologram of the bearded man, who was wearing a red blazer, bow tie and top hat, appeared at the bottom of the screen and pointed at the measured Mark Pougatch, who greeted us in Russian before starting a two-second discussion about the morality of holding the World Cup in Russia. “They definitely need a good tournament,” Lee Dixon said, frowning. “Everyone is aware of what’s going on. But now it is football’s time.”
That was it for the politics, especially as something else was catching the eye. Much had been made of ITV snapping up Gary Neville but the real star of the show was
turning out to be the studio, a garish, bonkers setting in Red Square that looked as if it might have been designed by Donald Trump. There were huge virtual windows, the walls looked as if they were on
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fire and there were paintings of great players dotted around the place. It looked like a galactic lord’s living room. Or a Burger King advert.
The striking interior design made it hard to focus on the pundits. For a while it became a battle between the studio and Slaven Bilic, who was full of good humour and insight, even when the Croat became the butt of the joke during a discussion about Spain’s strife. “Slav could probably manage them,” Ian Wright said.
Neville, meanwhile, was disappointing. When Bilic explained that Russia have struggled since introducing a quota on foreign players, Neville considered the point for a moment before declaring that the Premier League should implement a similar rule.
More enjoyable was seeing
Jacqui Oatley holding court in the Luzhniki Stadium with Eni Aluko and Ryan Giggs, who celebrated his first World Cup by dressing as Larry David. This is a breakthrough tournament for female pundits and Aluko was a breath of fresh air.
VAR was another major talking point and Mark Clattenburg paid homage to Andy Townsend by appearing in an analysis truck. “I was thinking about wearing my ref’s kit for ITV today,” the refereeing expert chortled. “But I chose to put a nice suit on.”
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