BBC and ITV’s Euro 2024 line-up exposes football punditry’s big identity crisis

Micah Richards, Gary Lineker, Gabby Logan, Wayne Rooney are among the BBC’s presenting team at Euro 2024 (BBC/Holly McCandless Desmond)
Micah Richards, Gary Lineker, Gabby Logan, Wayne Rooney are among the BBC’s presenting team at Euro 2024 (BBC/Holly McCandless Desmond)

Televised football punditry often feels like wallpaper or the music of Kenny G: you can be stuck in a room with it for hours, and it’ll fail to make even the slightest impression. Quietly, though, it is every bit as important to the UK’s footballing culture as the lads actually out there hoofing a ball around on the pitch. Unless you’re a pure-bred lower-league idealogue whose conception of football begins and ends at the turnstiles of your local ground, everybody must sometimes rely on TV to curate their football experience – not just to watch it but to frame it and explain it.

Lately, however, it has started to feel as if broadcast TV’s football ecosystem is in the throes of an identity crisis. This, principally, is caused by football’s relationship with the internet, which has altered significantly how fans engage with and understand the sport. Yesterday, Uefa Euro 2024 began with a fixture between the host nation, Germany, and Scotland. The evening also launched an intensive month-long blitz of TV football coverage, with games divvied up between the BBC and ITV. On the Beeb’s side, we have Match of the Day stalwart and serial “BBC Highest Earner” Gary Lineker, alongside Gabby Logan, Mark Chapman and Alex Scott, and a punditry team that also includes Micah “burst onto the scene” Richards, Wayne Rooney, Alan Shearer, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Ellen White and Joe Hart. ITV, meanwhile, is building its coverage around presenters Mark Pougatch and Laura Woods, as well as pundits such as Ian Wright, Karen Carney, Graeme Souness, Ange Postecoglou, and Man United old boys Gary Neville and Roy Keane.

To be clear, there’s nothing too egregious about any of these choices. ITV’s team in particular comprises a few of the modern game’s superior presenters and a good mix of distinct punditry styles. Wright, for instance, is jovial and authentic, Neville assertive and analytical, Keane curmudgeonly and blunt (pure box office). But Euro 2024 is a particularly significant tournament for England, who enter the competition as favourites. In terms of the squad at our disposal, it is the most promising opportunity to win major international silverware that our country has had in decades. If this England squad is (at least from the midfield upwards) the most exciting and talented young team in Europe, then we deserve a discourse to equal it, a level of analysis and insight that can truly bring out the beauty of the beautiful game.

In recent years, Sky Sports (and, to a lesser extent, BT Sports/TNT) has tweaked the formula of its Premier League punditry, attempting to inject more flavour and internet virality into programming through lively personality match-ups. Ex-pros such as Richards, Keane and Jamie Carragher have been at the forefront of this, with post-match discussions sometimes descending into entertaining quarrels as thinly veiled club allegiances inevitably peek through. The tactic works: clips of these arguments, or moments of ridicule, are widely and enthusiastically shared among football fans on social media. Judging by the Euro 2024 presenting line-ups, this year’s tournament broadcasters will probably be attempting a similar tack: punditry that’s inoffensive, informal (ITV probably a shade more so than the BBC), and accessible.

Traditional TV broadcasters will be aware of the threat that the internet poses to its football programming. On the one hand, this regards the actual watching of games: Premier League-sanctioned, promptly uploaded YouTube highlight videos are increasingly eating into the demand for Match of the Day, for instance. But the threat is also about style and sophistication. In recent years, social media has become a forum for football fans to really discuss the sport openly, with a level of both detail and candour that traditional TV, with its invisible web of legalities and professional loyalties, prohibits.

On social media, fans are able to dive into the specifics of the sport with a level of involved, complicated detail that TV doesn’t allow – often through analysts and well-informed fans who build their whole brand around a single club. Terms such as xG (expected goals), or, say, “box midfield”, were explained and discussed online long before they began seeping into mainstream TV coverage. But it’s not just the tactical aspect: it’s a matter of honesty. On social media, people are freer to be more frank – and more negative – about the players they’re discussing. This can be a bad thing, of course (I’m not condoning the kind of abuse that some players arbitrarily receive after a poor game), but not always. In a competitive sport, it’s only fair for fans to be able to discuss players’ flaws and weaknesses – as well as (sometimes quite serious and consequential) off-pitch controversies that TV programmes are often legally prohibited from mentioning.

Sport on TV is by nature always sanitised: there’s too much money in it for this not to be the case. (It’s not just post-game discussions that are whitewashed, of course – just look at pseudo-promotional football docuseries such as All or Nothing or Welcome to Wrexham for more examples of the same.) The TV coverage inevitably ends up seeming disingenuous, or at the very least, disconnected. Online, football discourse has metastasised into something that TV cannot really replicate.

What we’re left with is a pretty impossible line for TV broadcasters to walk: keeping their coverage broad and jargon-free enough to accommodate casual viewers with minimal football knowledge – while also providing enough detailed specialist insight to make the punditry revealing and worthwhile for football fans who are, thanks to social media, increasingly savvy about the machinations of the game. The way things are going, the great footballing revolution will not be televised; it’ll be staring up at you from your phone.

Euro 2024 fixtures can be watched on BBC and ITV