Monday, 12 July 2010

The World Cup: National Stereotype Bingo

Refreshing Ghanaians, industrious Koreans, flamboyant Brazilians, arrogant Frenchmen, negative Italians and efficient Germans.

While the World Cup may have deprived us of many things (daylight, the ability to form a non-football related conversation), the British media’s coverage of the tournament certainly provided us with an abundance of national stereotypes. Indeed, soundtracked by BBC or ITV commentary, watching an international football match became more like an introduction to a game of national stereotype bingo.

The opening fixture between hosts South Africa and Mexico set the tone, with Peter Drury rejoicing at the “wonderful sights and sounds” of a “colourful” crowd. This was, after all, the first World Cup to be staged in Africa, a continent supposedly without anything but a smile on its face.

It was Ghana who were truly smothered by patronising ITV commentary, with Clive Tyldsley particularly belittling in his reference to the Black Stars’ “refreshing” approach. With every mention of the “colour” and “big African smiles” of supporters and players alike, it was as if the entire squad were having their hair ruffled by an army of elderly relatives.

Ghana’s quarter-final loss to Uruguay was, of course, a crushing blow to the whole of little Africa, and our friends in the studios had the knives out for Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s willing pantomime villain. Suarez’s handball denied Ghana a semi-final place, helped big bad Uruguay (population of three million people) to a fourth-placed finish and allowed Adrian Chiles and his cronies to crank up the condescension with heaps of gushing sympathy.

South Korea were treated similarly even as they beat Greece 2-0, with analysts and pundits repeating like a mantra the now institutional stereotype of “industrious” Asian footballers. The guile of Park Ji-Sung was irrelevant, likewise South Korea’s collectively slick performance. What ITV wanted us to see was just how hard those little South Koreans had worked.

BBC were seldom any better on the opening day, as they indulged in predictable caricatures of the French squad. “Plenty of Gallic shrugs,” Steve Wilson helpfully observed, reminding those watching at home that Raymond Domenech’s men are little more than an assembly of ‘cheese-eating surrender-monkeys’.

With their self-destructive penchant for player coups and disinterested performances, though, France were arguably one team who actually strengthened their country’s stereotypes.

Brazil and Holland, meanwhile, were determined to confound their respective traditions of ‘Samba Football’ and ‘Total Football’ flamboyance. With every gruff holding midfielder who replaced a dainty playmaker, their managers Bert Van Marwijk and Dunga seemed to be revelling in their elaborate refusal of the long-standing labels attached to their sides.

Tyldsley did not appear to have seen any of Brazil’s matches, however, as he welcomed a headed goal of theirs with the disbelieving screech: “Brazil score a British goal!” How surprising that the diminutive South Americans can jump and emulate their Anglo-Saxon peers, who had of course enjoyed such a fruitful tournament.

England did seem conspicuous by their absence in these long and recurring lists of stereotypes. So, when BBC and ITV commentators present their warped coverage of Euro 2012, why not introduce their viewers to the “underwhelming English”?

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