For most football fans their collective memory of a World Cup comes from the television coverage, but after two mysteriously poor displays in South Africa, some fans are asking whether ITV are cursed when it comes to screening England games.
The channel attracted criticism after two high profile blunders in the current tournament. The network inexplicably missed England’s opening goal of the tournament against the USA on their HD channel.
This was followed by the dismissal of their pundit Robbie Earle after a bizarre episode in which tickets in his name somehow ended up in the hands of Dutch women engaging in an ambush marketing stunt.
These gaffes come after a series of highly embarrassing and costly mistakes over the past 2 years: Everton’s winning goal against Liverpool in a live FA Cup replay in 2009 was ruined by a rogue Tic-Tac advert; a high profile Nike World Cup advert was cut short during the Champions League final last month and an expensive Adidas advert was also the victim of technical problems.
On paper this is ridiculous. I’m sure Fabio Capello and previous England managers didn’t structure their team talks around which channel was showing the match.
It would seem tactics, fitness and players hitting form at the right time would play a much more important role in a team’s success at a major international football tournament.
However, given the role that chance undoubtedly plays in football, it can be a game that inspires some remarkably superstitious behaviour:
At the 2006 World Cup, Noel Gallagher became a lucky mascot for Allessandro Del Piero. After the Oasis star witnessed Italy’s semi-final victory over Germany, the Italian forward forced his friend to wear exactly the same clothes for the final in Berlin. They not only won, but did so in a penalty shoot-out, which is rare for Italy.
It seems understandable that players like to relieve pre-game tension with a ritual or charm.
For fans watching on TV, who have no control over the game, superstition arguably performs a similar function in reducing stress and creating an illusion of optimism that things will somehow turn out for the best.
But how does the idea of a particular TV channel being a jinx on the England team actually stack up to the evidence?
Do England perform better at a World Cup when the game is live on the BBC? Or is this just an urban myth that has arisen around which coverage we prefer?
Looking at the historical data of which channel covered England games doesn’t really reveal any scientific truths, after all an ‘ITV jinx’ isn’t really Newtonian physics.
But it does uncover some interesting factors which may explain why such an idea has taken root.
If you look closely at every World Cup where the BBC and ITV have covered England games, certain patterns and motifs do emerge.
Below is an analysis of every tournament where the the two broadcasters have covered England, with the following ground rules:
So, are ITV really cursed when it comes to England?
When it comes to live international football, the BBC had already established itself as a World Cup broadcaster at the 1954 tournament in Switzerland.
So when ITV was launched in 1955 it was already playing catch up when they covered their first tournament in Sweden during 1958.
Despite being in its infancy, the newly formed commercial network covered the same number of games as the BBC, which were the 0-0 draw with Brazil and the 1-0 defeat to the USSR.
This was also the beginning of a long trend which saw the rival broadcasters cover the same matches, something that became more common in years to come.
But perhaps at this early stage of World Cup coverage, the BBC was deemed the more authoritative voice due to the fact that they were the older broadcaster who had formed a special niche in British cultural life since their birth in the 1920s.
1962 in Chile presented major logistical problems for TV channels in the UK, as satellite coverage was still in its infancy and pictures couldn’t be beamed back live from South America.
BBC Radio covered England’s matches whilst the filmed footage had to be shipped back to the UK and edited before being broadcast in delay two days later.
England’s group games included a 2-1 defeat to Hungary, a 3-1 win over Argentina and 0-0 draw with Bulgaria, before ending with a 3-1 quarter-final defeat to eventual winners Brazil.
But ITV’s decision to not to cover the tournament at all gave the BBC a valuable opportunity to establish itself as the broadcaster to turn to when England were playing in a foreign tournament.
David Coleman’s spirited rant whilst introducing the infamous ‘Battle of Santiago’ between Chile and Italy was also a classic World Cup moment cementing him as a voice we forever associate with this era.
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 4 / ITV 0
England’s most successful tournament was in 1966 when the nation triumphed on home soil.
From a broadcasting perspective BBC and ITV covered all the England matches live, so logic would dictate that their coverage would judged equally. But football and logic don’t always make for natural bedfellows.
Ask any England fan what they remember about the final against Germany and one famous phrase sticks out.
If you ask fans who was commentating for ITV that day you are probably likely to get a puzzled look (it was Hugh Johns).
England’s most famous sporting triumph was indelibly associated with a BBC voice.
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 16 / ITV 16
1970 in Mexico saw the first World Cup in colour television and both broadcasters covered an equal number of matches, although they decided to split some games for the group phase.
The BBC opted to show the 1-0 win over Romania, both channels showed the 1-0 defeat against Brazil and ITV went with the final group game against Czechoslovakia, which England won 1-0.
The fateful 3-2 defeat against West Germany in the quarter-finals was on the BBC, but two interesting trends had now emerged.
It was the beginning of both channels opting to show some games exclusively and others ‘together’. But it was also a further reminder of how culturally resonant BBC commentators had become.
Ask any armchair England fans which TV voices they remember from this World Cup and they’ll probably think of David Coleman (“Pele! Jairzinho! There it is!”) and Kenneth Wolstenholme (“That was sheer, delightful football!”) waxing lyrical about the Brazilians on the BBC.
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 3 / ITV 3
That era of England winning and reaching the latter stages of a World Cup would take on an extra nostalgic glow as they failed to qualify for the tournaments in 1974 and 1978.
But in the absence of reaching those finals in Germany and Argentina, some infamous qualifying games took on a new significance.
In particular, the clash with Poland at Wembley in 1973 was a horror show.
England needed a win to qualify but a major goalkeeping error from Peter Shilton and an inspirational performance from his Polish counterpart Jan Tomaszewski (who Brian Clough dubbed a “clown”) meant that a 1-1 draw was not good enough.
It was an iconic defeat marking the end of an era.
Alf Ramsay resigned and England were not to reach another World Cup until 1982. How could we win a World Cup if would couldn’t even reach one? England’s self image was forever tarnished.
But significantly for ITV, they covered the game exclusively live. Was the channel tainted by this disastrous result? Did England fans subconsciously link them with a painful defeat?
In the qualifiers for 1978, ITV repeated the same ‘trick’ by covering a crucial qualifier.
This time it was with group rivals Italy and although England actually won 2-0 at Wembley, they eventually failed to qualify on goal difference. Again, were ITV unfairly linked with the dark days of England’s football in the 1970s?
When England finally did return to World Cup action in the 1982 tournament in Spain, the template for modern TV coverage was set.
The opening qualifiers alternated between the two channels, with the BBC covering England’s 3-1 over France, whilst ITV opted for the 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia and the 1-0 win over Kuwait.
The second group stage (which would see the winners progress to the semi-finals) saw the BBC cover the 0-0 draw with West Germany whilst ITV chose the 0-0 draw with Spain, which ultimately wasn’t good enough for England to progress.
Due to the nature of the group system that year (which was replaced to the present format in 1986) England somehow managed to exit the tournament despite not losing a game and only conceding 1 goal.
ITV covered more England wins in the tournament than the BBC, but had the misfortune to cover the frustrating final game, the 0-0 draw with Spain they had to win in order to progress.
Kevin Keegan missed an easy header in the dying minutes and it was symbolic of modern English frustrations at a World Cup. Good, but not good enough.
Was ITV becoming associated with England’s failure? Were they now becoming the ‘England’ of football channels?
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 4 / ITV 7
Mexico in 1986 was a tournament that started off disastrously in the group stages. The BBC covered the opening 1-0 defeat to Portugal, ITV broadcast the dismal 0-0 draw with Morocco and the action returned to the BBC for a crucial 3-0 win over Poland.
As the tournament entered the knockout phase, both channels covered the key England games.
This was a trend that continued up until the 1998 World Cup and the logic was fairly simple: England could go out and both channels (this being an era when there was literally only four to watch) wanted as bigger a slice of the audience as possible.
But for this tournament, it seemed pretty even as far as the broadcasters were concerned and it seems hard to recall anyone at the time referring to ITV bringing bad luck to England.
However, there still persists a strange theory that ITV somehow jinx those games also covered by the BBC.
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 6 / ITV 4
With the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the two rivals fell in to the familiar pattern of alternating the group matches and simultaneously covering the knockout phase.
This tournament lives long in the memory for a generation of English football fans.
Reaching the semi-final was the best England had achieved since 1966 (and still is). The popularity of Paul Gascoigne foreshadowed the rise of the celebrity footballer.
Most significantly, a much needed optimism driven by success in the tournament helped English clubs back into European competitions after the ban following the Heysel disaster.
But after only just qualifying for the tournament with a 1-1 draw away to Poland, it is easy to forget the uproar that greeted England’s opening group game against Ireland in Cagliari.
The 1-1 draw was a dire match made worse by the long ball football favoured by the Irish under Jack Charlton. The channel that showed this infamous game? Step forward, ITV.
In contrast the BBC showed the next group clash with Holland, a much improved performance despite being a 0-0 draw, and the following 1-0 victory with Egypt.
For the knockout stages both channels opted to show England live, which covered the clashes with Belgium, Cameroon, West Germany and the 3/4th place playoff with Italy.
Most importantly, football hit a wider cultural nerve and a new generation of fans were hooked. These included the people who would pay monthly to see football on Sky and help kick start a boom which saw the creation of Premier League in 1992.
An unprecedented amount of money and overseas talent poured into the top-flight of the English game, although the long term effect on the national side was debatable.
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 10 / ITV 7
DO I NOT LIKE USA 1994
Interestingly, the domestic success of the Premier League in the 1990s was not reflected at international level.
After a woeful European Championships in 1992 (which saw manager Graham Taylor depicted as a turnip after losing to the Swedes) England somehow failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA.
After a stuttering qualifying campaign that saw them lose to Norway, they faced Holland in a crucial deciding qualifier in Rotterdam in October 1993.
A 2-0 defeat effectively saw them miss out on qualification. It was the most infamous England game since 1973 and, just like that Poland match, ITV showed it exclusively live.
A behind-the-scenes Channel 4 documentary (originally commissioned to show England’s glorious route to the World Cup) captured Taylor in full meltdown and gave birth to his famous catchphrase “Do I not like that!“.
Although the BBC would show some poor England performances, it seemed ITV were developing an unfortunate habit for capturing the high profile stinkers.
The 1996 European championships in England, which saw the host nation nearly reach the final, was a further boost to the popularity of the game and expectation was sky high for the next World Cup.
When England arrived in France for the 1998 tournament the modern media template was in full swing.
Pre-tournament crisis (manager Glen Hoddle dropping Paul Gascoigne from the final squad) was followed by ridiculously high expectations and massive media coverage.
Since Euro 96, each successive tournament featuring the national side seems to grow exponentially in terms of hype and it is easy to forget now (post-2002 and 2006) what a frenzy there was surrounding England’s first World Cup since Italia 90.
As far as TV coverage was concerned, there was now a regular pattern as to how the broadcasters divided up the games.
They would alternate until England reached the quarter or semi-final stage and from then on both would show the games live (how optimistic that sounds now!).
The BBC opted for the opening group game against Tunisia. Anchor Des Lynam slyly greeted the afternoon weekday audience with the line “shouldn’t you be at work?”, before England won 2-0.
ITV had opted for the second group game against Romania, presumably because the evening kick off time meant a prime time audience. Bad choice as it turned out, as England not only lost 2-1 but did so with a particularly painful stoppage time goal which came minutes after a dramatic equaliser from newcomer Michael Owen.
Needing a win against Columbia in their final group game to go through, it seemed inevitable that the BBC would cover the 2-0 win over Columbia. Failure to win the group pitted them in the tough half of the draw and they lost on penalties to Argentina after drawing 2-2 in extra time.
The game was on ITV and was for several years the largest audience in the channel’s history. But despite being a ratings success with around 25 million viewers tuning in, it is my theory that this tournament was where the notion of an ITV curse began to form.
Quite simply, there were four England games in total. When they played on the BBC, they won. When they played on ITV, they lost. As the first World Cup since Italia 90, directly following the success of Euro 96, this was a tournament firmly in the glare of modern media overload.
A consequence of these was that key defeats became associated with ITV. Unfair? Irrational? Yes, clearly it is both unless someone uncovers evidence that sinister ITV operatives somehow bribed referees and drugged England players before games.
England’s exit in this World Cup was only the second time they went out on penalties. Unfortunately for ITV, commentator Brian Moore provided a bizarre flourish to their exit.
As David Batty ran up to take the fateful penalty in the shootout Moore inexplicably asked co-commentator Kevin Keegan if he was going to score. Keegan was in an impossible situation.
If he had said no then he would be ‘blamed’ for the miss, but if Batty missed he would look stupid. Within a second it was the latter, but this bizarre ITV moment seemed to sum up England’s recent World Cup adventures: excitement, expectation and disappointment.
Another factor that may have given rise to superstitions during this period was when manager Glen Hoddle recruited a faith healer as part of the England coaching staff. Whether it had an effect on ITV’s luck is unproven.
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 6 / ITV 0
But by the 2002 tournament in Korea and Japan, there was a sense of déjà vu.
The rollercoaster qualifying campaign saw the resignation of Kevin Keegan, the recruitment of the first ever foreign manager (Sven Goran Eriksson), a 5-1 win away to Germany and a last-minute qualification goal against Greece.
Unluckily for ITV, the early kick off times (due to the Asian time zone) meant there was no prime time clashes, with games coming on at breakfast or lunchtime.
A particularly strange ITV moment happened when they covered the opening game of the tournament between France and Senegal. Anchor Des Lynam (a high-profile defector from the BBC) asked pundit Paul Gascoigne what he knew about the African side. Gazza simply answered: “Nothing”.
Their bad luck continued as they covered the disappointing opening 1-1 draw with Sweden, whilst the BBC broadcast the victorious 1-0 win over tournament favourites Argentina and the decisive 0-0 clash with Nigeria that saw them progress.
Possibly because the kick off times in this tournament were much earlier than ITV would have liked, they opted to screen the England’s knockout games with Denmark (3-0 win) and Brazil (a 2-1 defeat) alongside the BBC.
But when they go head to head with the BBC in these matches, ITV always get a smaller share of the audience.
Is this because audiences want uninterrupted coverage with no adverts? Better commentary? Or do some people really believe in that curse?
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 7 / ITV 4
By 2006, the tournament in Germany reached new levels of hype.
ITV were salivating at the prospect of European kick off times and huge-ratings in an era when multi-channel TV has eaten away at large single audience shares for major channels.
With the England squad featuring its supposed ‘golden generation’, the hype for the tournament was so great that one news channel even provided live coverage of England’s coach driving off to the airport.
The BBC had the uninspiring opening match with Paraguay, which saw England win 1-0.
ITV then had the misfortune to cover another World Cup clash where England were truly dire as they laboured to a 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago.
Things improved slightly for their coverage of the 2-2 draw with Sweden and a massive audience of 21 million tuned in.
For the knockout phase the BBC covered the tedious 1-0 win over Ecuador, whilst both channels covered the exit on penalties to Portugal after a 0-0 draw.
I find it odd to think that this was a particularly ‘cursed’ World Cup for ITV as England played just as badly on the BBC.
However, the superstitious may point out that Michael Owen’s tournament-ending knee injury occurred within 30 seconds of the kick off against Sweden on ITV.
With Rooney coming back from injury, the two strikers only played alongside each other for 30 seconds during the entire competition.
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 6 / ITV 4
[Click here for a larger version of the above image]
So, it would seem that England have done better at World Cups when the BBC cover the games.
Even if you discount the 1962 tournament which ITV didn’t cover, the Beeb still comes out on top.
Does this mean ITV are cursed?
I think the notion is a fairly recent one and any kind of conclusion as to why this superstition has grown needs to be placed in some kind of context.
The modern World Cup for England works like this. First there is the hype. Then there is some bad luck. And finally there is elimination due to a bogeyman or scapegoat, sometimes both.
The massive hype across all media usually features references to 1966 and the assertion that England are going to win the tournament, despite history and statistics suggesting otherwise.
The bad luck often features injuries to key players before or during the tournament, such as David Beckham in 2002, Wayne Rooney in 2006 and Rio Ferdinand in 2010.
There is also a likely clash with a former wartime enemy. Germany (1966, 1979, 1982 and 1990) or Argentina (1986, 1998 and 2002) often fit the bill and this year we have already had USA playing the role.
For good measure, the eventual elimination on penalties is usually blamed on a scapegoat. This can be a dodgy referee, a hapless player or a cheat.
ITV have been caught up in this modern madness that surrounds England at World Cups.
Although it represents the rare commercial opportunity of guaranteed ratings (especially if England do well), we also shouldn’t underestimate one of the main reasons the British public love the BBC: the lack of adverts.
The commercial nature of ITV also means its coverage of a tournament is filled with hype and over-optimism, which possibly feels worse when England go out.
Added to this are some truly infamous qualifying defeats (Poland in 1973 and Holland in 1993) broadcast exclusively live on ITV.
Most people probably have forgotten this, but it may linger in the collective subconscious of England fans and provides ammunition for irrational thinking.
The years when they covered the Premier League (2001-2004) also loom large when a failed 7pm timeslot and ill-advised touches such as the ‘tactics truck’ made BBC’s Match of the Day seem the proper home for football highlights. Ron Atkinson’s racist outburst against Marcel Desailly after a Champions League tie in 2003 further tarnished the channel’s image.
On top of this, there is the logic that our national broadcaster should cover our national team. The fact that BBC always beat ITV by a large margin in the ratings when they both show England games would seem to suggest this, as there isn’t much to separate them on a purely technical level.
Even England’s greatest victory of recent years was a perceived blunder for ITV. The 4-1 qualifier win away to Croatia was live on Setanta and haggling over the highlights package meant that ITV didn’t screen them until the following night, which in the year 2008 meant everybody had already seen them on YouTube.
The BBC are in an interesting position: if England go through after playing Slovenia on Wednesday (the full permutations are here), then the myth will grow that they are England’s lucky channel, even though England haven’t yet lost on ITV in this World Cup.
Is this all fair? No, clearly it isn’t. Like certain aspects of football, the perception that ITV’s coverage is a jinx on the England team is riddled with illogical thinking and superstition. But football is a superstitious game.
Why blame our grass roots infrastructure, our delusions of grandeur, our short-term strategies for the national team and our underperforming players when we can simply say that ITV brings us bad luck?
* UPDATE 20/06/10*
SOUTH AFRICA 2010
Since originally posting this, England’s campaign in South Africa has ended after a disastrous 4-1 defeat to Germany in the Second Round.
On reflection, the tournament fitted the usual pattern of excessive hype followed by massive deflation.
The old cliché of losing to a wartime enemy was fulfilled by Germany and references to the past were abundant as Frank Lampard had a perfectly good goal disallowed at 2-1, in what seemed to be some kind of cosmic revenge for the decisive goal in the 1966 final.
But what made the end of this campaign interesting was that there was no easy scapegoat, as the manner and scale of the defeat was so crushing.
Obviously the main villain would appear to be Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda and his assistants Mauricio Espinosa and Pablo Fandino, as even FIFA have since apologised for the now infamous decision.
However, this was England’s worst ever defeat at a World Cup and the woeful manner in which England were outfought and outclassed has seen blame spread amongst various scapegoats: manager Fabio Capello, the squad, the FA, the Premier League and even the footballing culture in England.
But how did ITV fare against the BBC? Like 1998, England only played four games and they were split evenly amongst the two broadcasters.
The first two games were on ITV and they were unlucky enough to capture two poor performances (the Algeria one was a particular stinker), whilst the BBC screened the crucial win against Slovenia.
Although both channels will be disappointed at England’s exit, ITV may be secretly relieved that the German defeat was screened exclusively on BBC.
The ‘curse of ITV’ would have gone into overdrive if the commercial channel had screened the match.
But my guess is that this superstition will still be around the next time England play in an international tournament.
Why? A superstition is easier to understand than the very deep problems that afflict England at international level.
Channel Head-to-Head: BBC 4 / ITV 2
* UPDATED OVERALL SCORE 1958-2010: BBC 67 / ITV 48 *