The Minute-by-Minute: As It's Happened

Hello, everyone. A 2011 study by language professor Gunnar Bergh of Mid-Sweden University hypothesised that "public football commentary is typically organised in accordance with the principles and parameters of warfare". In studying the Guardian's minute-by-minute coverage of the knockout stages of Euro 2008, Bergh found that Sean Ingle's report of the semi-final between Russia and Spain contained 117 "war-inspired expressions" in its 90-minute window. If, as Orwell once essayed, "sport is frankly mimic warfare" then the minute-by-minute report is its most faithful document.

Minute-by-minute football coverage (or MBM-ing) is the written equivalent of Soccer Saturday: reading someone writing what they see in a football match, as they see it. Bergh describes it as "a hybrid of oral commentary and written reports in newspapers". With its innate immediacy comes a certain informality that gets professionally sandpapered out of a "proper" match report. But just who's reading it, I found myself briefly wondering on my recent MBM-ing debutPerhaps minute-by-minute reports might have been better suited to Ceefax's heyday, before unpoliceable internet live-streaming opened up the 3pm Saturday kick-offs to anyone living in Derby as well as Dubai.

The coverage was pioneered by the Guardian's website during the 1998 World Cup. It's an intense format - there's essentially a deadline roughly every 90 seconds - and an uneventful game is arguably just as challenging as a pulsating, end-to-end barnstormer. Bergh again observes: 
"The noted variation in word count is probably due to such factors as the length of the match...the character of the play...and the idiosyncracies of the commentator (e.g. his personal bent towards verbosity)."
And Gazza Misses the Final, a new book by seasoned (dare I say grizzled?) MBM-ers Rob Smyth and Scott Murray, seeks to revisit the most famous matches in World Cup history and present them again in real time and, crucially, at face value. Some of the most endlessly-replayed moments on football's greatest stage stand side-by-side with the gloriously mundane (23 min: The sun's out!).

Particularly for someone with my attention span, it's virtually impossible to read this book directly from cover to cover. You're drawn immediately to the game that most captures your imagination - England v West Germany in 1990, in my case. In turn, your eyes are irresistibly dragged towards the iconic incidents, which are identified by bold text and a suitable number of exclamation marks!!! These plot twists are well-worn nostalgia, but this format brings them back to life as unexpected moments of drama. These are convincing snapshots of quasi-immediacy that, despite being written decades after the event, convey the sensation of a World Cup moment that the diminishing returns of straightforward nostalgia cannot.  

Semi-forgotten close shaves, disallowed goals and other coulda-woulda-shoulda turning points, many of which have been glossed over by sheer time, are brought back into the equation. I would use the word "narrative", but there is no artificially added narrative here, no knowing foreboding of whatever was to unfold. As Smyth and Murray point out in the preamble, "even a match report hurriedly filed on the final whistle is viewed through the filter of the result...nobody ever goes back to rewrite a live report."

Nevertheless, this book faces a running battle against the insidious corruption of hindsight. The authors can't resist some dramatic irony as Hurst puts the icing on the 1966 cake ("I wonder what Wolstenholme's saying over on the BBC?") and there's some occasional poetic licence applied - Gordon Banks's 1970 wonder save from Pelé is afforded around 300 words. 1962's infamous Battle of Santiago, meanwhile, is depicted as an almost slapstick, put-up-ya-dukes scene. Perhaps quite accurately:

41 min: But here come dark clouds! WHAT A LEFT HOOK!!! You can get too pious about stuff like this, so let's just say that's the best left hook you'll ever see on a football pitch! Pow! Right in the kisser! Straight to the moon!

34 min: CHRIS WADDLE HITS THE BAR FROM 45 YARDS! It wouldn't have counted, as the referee had blown for a foul by Platt a split-second earlier. That was reminiscent of Pelé in 1970 but this time it was a bloody Englishman doing it.

83 min: With Anderton lining up a free-kick on the right wing, the camera shows Merson laughing. How can you stand there guffawing at a time like this, man?! Don't you know what we're going through?

The incredulous upper-case outbursts, shamelessly partisan asides and the delightfully convoluted similes ("Fenwick nearly sent Maradona's kneecaps whirling like Catherine wheels towards Guadalajara!") are vital ingredients in what make the format so worthwhile. Smyth and Murray are rightly proud of the reporting style that they helped to make so popular: "It's the most honest appreciation of a match you're ever going to get." In Murray's case, in a 2003 Cricket World Cup report, perhaps even too honest.

One early symptom of World Cup fever is a craving for football nostalgia. Indulge it by firing up YouTube and getting hold of a copy of the most original way to relive the most well-documented World Cup moments (and some that you may just have forgotten after all this time).

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