Sports commentary in the service of ethnography

Much can be inferred about a nation by watching sports on its television.

Or at least this is my excuse for spending hours glued to the screen, what with the World Cup and Wimbledon overlapping this June.

Somehow I have to justify this waste of time by intellectualising it, pretending that I thereby study the cultural differences between England and France, where I happen to be at the moment.

Such pretence isn’t altogether groundless, for French commentators do provide ample material for ethnographic research.

The operative word in their job description isn’t ‘commentators’ but ‘French’. That’s what they are and they never let one forget it.

The other day one of them explained, just as a defender threw himself into a potentially leg-breaking, possibly life-threatening, tackle, that football isn’t just physical. Au contraire, it’s replete with philosophical and specifically metaphysical subtexts.

The French, I hasten to disclaim not to upset my local friends, are a very intelligent race. However, they aren’t as collectively intelligent as they seem to think. No nation is.

Whether this lack of self-awareness is tasteless pretence or woeful misapprehension is hard to say. Nor does it matter: overhearing waiters arguing which of them is Pascalian and which is Cartesian still makes one laugh or, if the main course has been too long in coming, wince.

Such incidents prove that teaching philosophy as a compulsory subject in secondary school isn’t necessarily a good idea. The football commentator I mentioned provides further proof, if any is needed.

No single generation in any country is ever blessed with more than a handful of people able to grasp the subtleties of metaphysical philosophy. At the risk of committing the cardinal sin of generalising, I don’t think that such overachievers are to be found in the ranks of football commentators.

Even less likely is that the tattooed gentlemen who play the game professionally ever ponder its philosophical implications. Nor do their coaches explain the immanent nature of the game or its existential aspects. They just tell their defenders to ‘let’im know you’re there’, meaning ‘try to kick him out of the game without getting yourself sent off.’

Then there’s partisanship. It would be presuming too much on human nature to expect football commentators to be dispassionately unbiased. They aren’t automata. They’re men of flesh and blood, and of course they’re going to support their team.

The question is how far they should go in communicating their feelings and which team they regard as their own.

That French commentators want to see France win goes without saying. But what about teams from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Algeria or Belgium?

One quickly finds out that, while being French can only be regarded as a generous and unparalleled gift from God, being French-speaking is second best. Once a nation has been anointed with Francophone culture, it becomes for ever French, or almost that.

Thus French commentators shriek their support for the teams I mentioned with almost the same jingoistic passion as that they reserve for France.

This is in stark contrast to English commentators, who are unlikely to give preferential treatment to a team from, say, Ghana or Nigeria. England yes, Scotland maybe, Jamaica most unlikely.

One also notices that, when covering teams from France or her former territories, the commentators aren’t much given to meiotic understatement.

Chaps, let’s be serious here. Missing an open goal is neither  a tragedy nor a catastrophe. Going one-nil down isn’t a calamity of cosmic proportions. Even – dare I say it? – losing a match to Brazil isn’t quite the same as losing a war to Germany.

And, while we’re at it, a referee who gives a penalty against your team just may be either right or honestly mistaken. He shouldn’t be automatically assumed to be in the pay of the evil forces personified by France’s opponents.

Also, lowering the decibel level of the celebrations following a goal scored by France or, for that matter, Ivory Coast (that is, Côte d’Ivoire) would go down a treat. It’s not as if Hollande had been kicked out of office, or France’s labour unions had decided they shouldn’t call massive strikes every week.

Another thing is phonetics. English commentators aren’t all classically educated polyglots, but at least they make an effort to pronounce foreign names in a vaguely foreign way. Sometimes they make too much of an effort, for example when insisting on pronouncing the Castilian interdental consonant in names like Lopez.

The French make no effort at all. All names, regardless of their provenance, are pronounced according to the strict rules of French phonetics. That leaves one wondering who the hell Marqueguess is until, at an epiphanic moment, one realises it’s our good old Mark Hughes.

The same goes for the tennis commentators, with minor yet telling differences. The first thing one notices is that they refer to all French players by their Christian names, not surnames.

Thus our sole world-class player is Murré or perhaps Ondeemurré, but French players are just Jo-Wilfried, Julian, Richard or Jéremy. Like the twelve apostles they have no surnames – forget about Tsonga, Benneteau, Gasquet or Chardy.

Such intimacy is reflected in the programming. One of the world’s top players, say, Roger Federer, may be playing the world’s Number 23 on Centre Court. However, if a French girl ranked Number 67 is at the same time playing a lower-ranked opponent on Court 16, that’s what the French TV will show – and if you don’t like it, you can suck un oeuf.

Perhaps sensing that no one, not even the French, gives two flying balls about the match, the commentators will typically chat about unrelated subjects throughout, not even bothering to comment on the game in progress.

A propos, Jacques,” they’d say in their smiley, carefully enunciated French, “would you remember whom Henri [Leconte] beat  in the third round of the 1985 Australian Open?” “But no, Jean-Pierre, I don’t, I’m desolate.” “Well, guess…” This can go on until the next commercial break, with the match on the screen never rating a mention.

Perhaps one really ought to consider the metaphysics of it all. Or else turn the sound off and watch the game proceed in dignified silence.



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