ALAN Hansen: dour deep lying tactical guru and small screen frozen foods frontman… and now hard-hitting social commentater with a withering line in political critique.
Hansen, best known for his sarcastic sneering at schoolboy defending and suspicion of creative flair, stunned his studio sofa squadmates as he did the pundits equivilent of a Cruyff turn and suddenly threw in a controversial opinion on a non-football topic.
“Apartheid…. ” he dangled the word solemnly in front of expectant teak tanned team-leader Gary Lineker. “That system was obviously fundamentally flawed.”
I half expected him – desperately wanted him – to continue to expound on the abhorent politics and morally bankruptcy of a slave labour economy based on eugenics and enforced by a vicious military regime… but in punditese.
“It’s shocking. You can’t run a complex society divided on racial lines like that. Woeful. You need a big man doing the simple things just in front of the back four, you need a Pik Botha or Eugene Terreblache in there putting a foot in protecting the back line or it will be exposed in the face of international public opinion.
“If you want to run a brutal regime you need a highly efficient military machine pushing on aggressively into the townships and taking out the key men in the opposition. You need to get a grip of the likes of Biko and Mandela early on or they’ll run you ragged down the left and build up some real momentum with spells of heavy diplomatic pressure and broad-based calls for economic sanctions and a cultural and sporting boycott.
“No, for me this is a system that can’t win the tournament. It’s too rigid. Too old fashioned. Too easy to counter. No basis in logic, law, science or any ethical system that will stands up to scrutiny in the modern game. It doesn’t have civic cohesion. It can’t be defended and without a well organised defence you’re nothing.
“Sure it had the sheer firepower and was ruthless enough to get through the early qualifiers at Sharpville and Soweto but when it comes up against a more complex, cosmopolitan world view and a determined and united internal and external opposition it goes to pieces. And that’s good for the game. Amandla! Umkhonto we sizwe!”
Now that would have been fantastic, gripping, eye-popping and surreal television. (Note to self: prepare pitch to BBC4 on possible documentary series in which the scowling Scot deconstructs the major tactical changes in post-war politics.) But he didn’t. He left it at that for that session.
The following night his piecemeal analysis by instalment was expanded to include the simple but correct verdict that it was not just flawed but “awful, just awful” …. and the pitiful query: “Why didn’t the world do something about it?”
Maybe when he was in his football bubble in the 80s he never realised there was a vocal and visible world-wide movement against apartheid, that South Africa never played in the World Cup, that a string of multi-national corporations were forced to disinvest because of protests and boycotts. Maybe he never heard the Specials blasting out ‘Free Nelson Mandela.’ I’m ready to believe that is true and this really is his first shocking awareness of the fundamentally flawed system.
Now, it is always nice to have public figures taking clear moral stances against historic aberrations to inject perspective – watch out for Alan Shearer’s denunciation of the Holocaust after next season’s Wigan v Blackpool bore draw and Lee Dixon expounding on the horrors of the civil war in Rwanda before the North London derby – but the sudden retrospective conversion to early 1980s sixth form politics was a transparent exercise in politically correct box ticking by the BBC.
Yes we know the tournament is in South Africa. And yes we know about the shameful history of the apartheid state. We know too the redemptive powers of football and its ability to unite, inspire and galvanise a people and to open a nation to the wider world and that for the new South Africa this is a wonderful opportunity.
But we don’t need a patronising sound bite from a pundit to remind us, especially not from one who seems to have only just discovered the uncomfortable truth.
And there has been more of the same cack-handed attempts at moral balance as if to off-set the luxury of the studio teams hotels and vast expenditure on the broadcast operation elsewhere.
The BBC bus (like the tactics truck on a gap year) has enjoyed a superficial sight-seeing trip bumming around South Africa and discovered among other things that there is poverty. And wildlife. And a variety of landscapes. The low point came as the crew got smiling township kids to show them how to make a football out of scrunched up discarded carrier bags then had an impromtu barefoot kickabout. Well that was licence payers money well spent. It was safe, sanitised picture postcard poverty. A cheap holiday in other people’s misery.
That is not to say that the still pressing social and political questions surrounding South Africa should not be addressed. They should. They are crying out to be addressed. But the way it has been handled so far has been cocooned in a risk-assessed and palatable PC way: politically correct, portion-controlled and pathetically contrived for an armchair audience that need protecting from the reality that the tournament of millionaires is being played on a continent where life is cheap and millions face endemic starvation . We are adults. We can deal with it. If you have something to say, spit it out.
If the BBC wanted to make a policy statement on apartheid they should have done it on day one. And if Alan Hansen wanted to make a pronouncement on apartheid he should have done it when Lucas Radebe – who grew up in Soweto at the height of repression and suffered a near fatal gunshot wound in his youth and was worth a profile documentary feature of his own – was in the studio. That would have been a debate worth having. And one where Alpha male Hansen couldn’t hector and patronise or insist that he knew better. There could be no dismissive sneered last word then.
The ironic thing is that the BBC have actually done some brilliant pieces in their supporting package away from the studio. Well thought out and sympathetically produced features on Robben Island and football in the townships, interviews with grassroots administrators of the cash-strapped game and a compelling docu-drama More Than A Game on the role of football in uniting the warring factions inside apartheid’s gulags into a coherent opposition that was to be the basis of much of today’s government (shown on BBC2 on Saturday and still available on the I-Player) were excellent.
Those pieces were engaging, powerful and informative without being condescending. Leave that specialist sphere to journalists, activists, historians and film-makers. The pundits should stick to what they do best: fill the gaps between games with inane banter and stating the obvious. Although to be fair to Hansen, that is exactly what he did.
NOT That I am picking on pundits (I’ve been trying to avoid talking about the football) but here’s a slim-line version of this week’s Big Picture column. Don’t ever say you don’t get your money’s worth on this blog……
DULL, one-dimensional and with their weaknesses cruelly exposed on the international stage… at least we’ve got the pundits the team deserves.
With a complacent approach, dearth of imagination and a reliance on tired old line-ups the small screen sofa squads on both channels have produced a mind-numbing drone to match the vuvuzelas.
On the biggest stage in the global game the ‘experts’ – patronising, defiantly ill-informed and brass-necked about their ride on the inane banter driven conveyor belt of cliche and stereotypes – have fallen woefully short.
The job of the ‘expert’ is to illuminate, to point out tactical and technical nuances for the layman, to provide insight and information about teams and players that the mere mortal may not have access to.
Yet before the Algeria v Slovenia game last week Alan Shearer – but it could so easily have been any one of a dozen identikit talking heads on either side – glibly announced on behalf of the studio collective: “Our knowledge of these two teams is limited”… and then went on to prove it.
Now, I may be asking too much here, but isn’t it his well paid licence fee payer funded job to ensure his knowledge isn’t limited? Otherwise what’s the point of him being there?
No-one is expecting him to embrace an anorak of minutae about the North African or Central European game but surely the massed ranks of the BBC research department – or heaven forbid, he himself – could have compiled a Mottsonian cribsheet for him. Maybe an idiot’s guide?
It is not as if the game was irrelevant: the teams are England’s Group C rivals and therefore of special interest to the audience – and presumably to the pundits too.
That game was an open goal for a well prepared ‘expert’ to pick out ones to watch, suggest how they would play and pick out elements of the game that England should be wary of, where the potential threat lies and how to nullify it.
That’s what I expect from an ‘expert’: tell me something I don’t already know.
But of course, therein lies the problem. These people are not really experts at all. Yes, they know plenty about the teams, tactics and culture of the Premiership Big Four (and Liverpool) – they probably play golf with the main protagonists – but they know alarmingly little about life outside the bubble. Anyone who follows a makeweight club in England knows that already.
On the World Cup stage that damning knowledge deficit is magnified – they don’t know the players or how the teams shape up or appear to have made any attempt to find out – and there isn’t much evidence of a genuine enthusiasm, joy or charisma to fill the void.
Worse, there has been a complete inability to appreciate and convey the way the international minnows – New Zealand for instance – have bridged the gap tactically.
There has been plenty of populist bluster and outrage at England’s draw with Algeria but little attempt to explain it. The pundits should have been telling us how the fluid movement and close control carved out space in dangerous areas and caused problems for Fab’s lads and what we could learn from it for the future. Instead they were happy to simply lambast England for a lack of heart and admit they were ‘shocked’.
That tactical illiteracy and simplistic kneejerk demands for ever more raw commitment at every set-back is part of insular England’s debilitating self-imposed blindfold.
Until we embrace ‘tactics’ as part of our football culture and discourse we are condemned to what Franz Beckenbauer called ‘kick and rush’ last week only to be greeted by a growl of chauvinistic denial.
It is noticeable that it has taken foreigners – mainly Clarence Seedorf and Jurgen Klinsmann – to take up the mission to explain but sad that their imput is listened to reverently… then usually followed by some schoolboy quip and giggling.
Of the domestic crew only Roy Hodgson (who has managed extensively abroad) and – Boro fans may have mixed feelings about this – Gareth Southgate over on ITV, have shone.
Southgate has tried to explain the unfolding shape of a game and give a flavour of what the managers are trying to do.
With his ideas on ball retention, the need for creativity in the middle and getting your best players in their best positions he could maybe be in the dug-out himself one day.
He is articulate and thoughtful and gets his message across concisely in an engaging way. But he’s new, he’ll learn.
At the opposite end of the ITV spectrum is no-nonsense Mick McCarthy, who like his team goes route one. If I wanted to hear an aggressive bloke growl “that keeper is a right tart” I could go to the pub.
Generally the old boys network is not great value. It doesn’t illuminate and it doesn’t provoke. And it certainly doesn’t entertain.
For domestic games that doesn’t matter as we know the players, the teams and the context ourselves. Their bit is just padding and a chance to make a trip to the fridge.
On the big stage, when viewers actually need some help they have proved useless.
A ten minute appearance by the brilliant Danny Baker after the Algeria game was electrifying. He combined passion with hard-hitting views, surreal digressions and some observations that made strait laced Shearer wince.
Refusing to join a ritual witch hunt Baker spoke as a fan, revelled in the emotions of defeat and laughed: “There was a grandeur about our mediocrity. It was funny and exciting how bad we were.”
After he had gone bamboozled Shearer said: “I wish I had some of whatever he’s on.”
So do we Alan. It’s called personality.