Legends of the fall: pundits bring cold comfort to World Cup viewers | World Cup 2022

There’s a perception that working in the media is glamorous, especially when it comes to covering massive cultural and sporting events. Well, my first involvement with Glastonbury as a journalist was live-blogging it from an office, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be bringing you coverage of the World Cup from my kitchen. As someone who is, according to Qatari World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman, “damaged in the mind”, this is probably for the best.

Usually, watching the home nations from the home nations during big tournaments means bagsying pub‑garden tables alongside fans with England flag face-paint sweated off into strawberry swirls. The Tartan Army teaming tracksuit tops with kilts. Wales supporters quoting Michael Sheen’s rousing speech from The Last Leg. And, though we’ve collectively tried to forget, observing men with flares up their arses.

Not this time. This time, despite being indoors, I am watching the football wearing a beanie hat. It is dark outside. In Doha it is 28C; here it’s 7C. But, though much about this tournament is unfamiliar, one thing will never change: the great BBC versus ITV debate. Which has the better title credits? Who are the best pundits? Will a co-commentator butcher a player’s name to levels not seen since John Travolta called Idina Menzel “Adele Dazeem”? It’s a competition in itself. The ad-free Beeb often routs its commercial rival, but Euros 2020 (aka Euros 2021) saw a standout ITV performance – though was thumped in the viewing figures when the broadcasters went head-to-head in the final.

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On Monday afternoon the BBC brought us England’s debut against Iran, although the channel’s coverage had kicked off on Sunday with the tournament’s opening ceremony. Or rather, not with the tournament’s opening ceremony – which was relegated to iPlayer.

Instead Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Alex Scott and Ashley Williams focused on criticism of the host nation. The rife corruption surrounding its bid; the abhorrent treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums; LGBTQ and women’s rights, or lack thereof. Lineker’s will probably be the most shared opening monologue since Emily Maitlis’s Newsnight evisceration of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Naturally, many on Twitter bemoaned that Lineker and co, employed by the British Broadcasting Corporation, were hypocrites for “taking the Qataris’ money”. Which once again makes me consider that universal franchise should be replaced with some kind of basic aptitude test.

For the England game it was Rio Ferdinand and Micah Richards who joined Lineker and Shearer on the tournament’s muted set, decorated white and what I would describe as burgundy but people will email in to say is maroon. A complete contrast, then, to the title credits produced by Edinburgh-based Studio Something who presumably were all off their face on drugs at the time. I quite like them. They’re raucous and boldly coloured, and a grinding chant of HERE WE GO means that every single grandparent in the country will mute them instantly. Speaking of noise, thankfully the squeaky chair issue of the previous evening had been fixed.

We’ve only gone and made the BBC World Cup titles!

As massive fans of football, design and funky music we are incredibly privileged to have been handed the opportunity to make a sequence that will be watched by millions this winter.

Here it is in all its glory. pic.twitter.com/aq0yo2SeHZ

— Studio Something (@s0methingsays) November 20, 2022

The big talking point of the day was how Fifa had threatened teams who had planned to wear the OneLove armband with a booking – clearly Gianni Infantino no longer felt gay. The teams backed down. Scott displayed class when she wore the armband pitchside at half‑time, talking to Kelly Somers. (Never mind that the OneLove armband is quite crap – just wear an actual full-rainbow armband if you want to show solidarity; but to then not wear it because it might be punitive, which is literally how sticking to principles work, is quite something)

Guy Mowbray and, in my opinion, the unfairly maligned Jermaine Jenas were in the commentary booth, and did well given the game was stopped for approximately 94 hours when the Iran keeper Alireza Beiranvand was left prone on the turf after a horrific clash of heads with his defender. Mowbray winced and declared: “I don’t think we need to see that again”, as the director replayed it from four angles. The rest of their job – and that of the in-studio gang – was a doddle, given that England scored an excellent six goals and put in a good performance all round.

ITV made its bow with the day’s second fixture: Senegal against Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands. I watched on ITVHub which – along with people who write “thank you” as one word – has served as the bane of my existence. I don’t really know about the sort of torture metered out to dissenters in various autocratic countries around the world, but forcing them to watch ITVHub would be a good shout. This time, however, it worked fine for me, and a source tells me (ie, my friend Josh) that the newer, sleeker ITV X also behaved.

Ian Wright, Gary Neville, Nigel de Jong and Laura Woods in ITV’s World Cup studio
Ian Wright, Gary Neville, Nigel de Jong and Laura Woods (left to right) in ITV’s World Cup studio. Photograph: ITV

ITV’s titles were kind of sweet, if a bit random. An animated sequence of teams making their way to the desert, variously via rowing boat (England), super‑yacht (Cristiano Ronaldo, obviously), horses, hot air balloons etc. In reality, it has been private jets flying to an event which has a carbon footprint of 3.6 million tons. The studio set design had continuity from the titles, bringing over the hot air balloons to its backdrop. But the balloons over undulating sand dunes was giving Windows screensaver vibes, or the pre-set photos on a Canon.

Laura Woods, hosting, was joined by Nigel de Jong, Rio Ferdinand, and Gary Neville (who has had criticism for taking actual Qatari money for his work with BeIn Sports). All were proficient analysers before kick‑off and at half‑time, but the real treat was the commentary. On duty were champion duo Jon Champion (sorry) and Ally McCoist. Champion and McCoist team up for the odd Premier League game on Amazon Prime, and they are an indefatigable joy. McCoist is so enthusiastic about everything, has such golden retriever energy, that, during what was objectively a game drier than the Khor Al Adaid, Champion ventured so tentatively: “I know you’re enjoying the nuances, but am I allowed to say it’s been slightly pedestrian?” McCoist conceded that it had been.

To wrap up, and sticking with ITV, Gareth Bale led the charge for Wales against USA. Two teams who had also broken their pledge to wear the OneLove armbands. Bravo for Eni Aluko’s pro-take on the armband, and for Roy Keane who, when asked by the host Mark Pougatch about the situation, said: “I think the players could have worn it for the first game, that would have been a great statement.” Also in the studio was the former Welsh international Hal Robson-Kanu, with Clive Tyldesley and John Hartson on comms. Perfectly serviceable on an evening which brought a 1-1 draw for Rob Page’s men, but a bit of a comedown after the exuberance of McCoist.

If this World Cup feels weird and uncomfortable enough as it is – and here it should be made clear that Qatar isn’t the only nation that treats migrants appallingly, hello to Southampton fan Rishi Sunak – the experience of watching on the sofa with a hot water bottle and an Earl Grey tea, instead of a deck chair and a cool glass of something clinking with ice, just isn’t the same. McCoist would still be happy, though.

‘Utterly addictive’: how Wrexham took over Reynolds and McElhenney | Wrexham

In an early episode of Welcome to Wrexham, there is a scene recorded on a movie lot shortly after Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney meet in person for the first time. Recently approved as the new owners of a fifth-tier football club located in a working-class town in north Wales, the actors are filmed admiring what appears to be a brass plaque on a studio wall commemorating the first film in which the Deadpool star Reynolds appeared. A closer inspection and impromptu act of minor vandalism reveals the plate to be made of cheap plastic and rubber, prompting McElhenney to observe gleefully: “This is just Hollywood to a tee; beautiful on the outside but just … shit.”

Previously acquainted with Reynolds only through a series of mid-pandemic video calls on which they had discussed and negotiated the purchase of Wrexham Football Club from its supporters trust, McElhenney was the driving force behind the takeover. He couldn’t do it alone and needed the “movie-star money” provided by Reynolds, who has supplemented his already obscene acting income with lucrative stakes in Aviation American Gin and Mint Mobile. Neither man had ever set foot in Wales, let alone Wrexham, and the prevailing concern among fans regarding the Hollywood duo’s peculiar interest was that their stardust-sprinkled stewardship and the documentary series that would chronicle it might turn out to be as tacky as the studio sign.

When news of Reynolds’s and McElhenney’s pursuit started percolating in 2020, the understandable question on everyone’s lips was: why Wrexham? More specifically, what possible motivation could a couple of TV and movie heavyweights from across the pond have for investing in a club that have been treading National League waters for well over a decade and what would their involvement mean for the future of the club and town?

They are queries addressed in the opening episode of their Disney+ series, which is halfway through an opening run of 18 episodes. In the first one, McElhenney lays out his blue-collar credentials as the son of a working-class man who grew up in Philadelphia and says he feels an affinity between his home city and the Welsh town.

During his and Reynolds’ online pitch to the supporters trust, he tells his bemused audience that seeing his beloved Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl in 2018 was one of the top five moments in his life, up there with marrying his wife and having children. He also stresses his fascination with the idea of promotion and relegation and on more than one occasion in the series makes no secret of his ambition to move Wrexham up to the Premier League.

To begin this ambitious odyssey, Wrexham first have to escape a purgatory in the National League now in its 15th year, with the club trying to achieve promotion back to the Football League at the third time of asking under Reynolds and McElhenney. With that pair taking a backseat during the early episodes, we are invited behind the scenes at the club and, in film that calls to mind Sunderland Til I Die, introduced to the town of Wrexham and many of members of a population to whom the club means everything.

Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney celebrate a goal for Wrexham
Reynolds and McElhenney have given every indication they are in it for the long haul at Wrexham. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

There’s Shaun Winter, a painter and decorator who “hates” his job, is the father of two young boys and is struggling to cope with the fact that their mother has just left him. Wayne Jones is the amiable and opinionated landlord and chief confessor of the Turf hotel, located just beside the Racecourse Ground and a shrine to the club where worshippers congregate on match days.

Receiving treatment for bowel cancer, Michael “Scoot” Hett is the lead singer of a local band whose members could scarcely be more chuffed to hear their catchy composition about Wrexham’s new owners being sung from the terraces. Like many other fans who quickly threaten Reynolds’ and McElhenney’s role as the main characters of this docu-series, Annette Gardner, a local librarian and club volunteer, isn’t short of a strident opinion. When the owners finally get round to visiting their club and meet her, she bluntly takes them to task over their decision to appoint Shaun Harvey, the controversial former chief executive of the English Football League and CEO at Leeds United and Bradford City, as their strategic adviser.

Having watched Wrexham’s progress, or lack of it, from afar for almost a year, McElhenney and Reynolds get their first live experience of National League football on a cold October night in Maidenhead. Their low-key arrival is booed by home fans, who go on to serenade the duo with chants of “You bought the wrong club!” as Wrexham valiantly rally from two goals and a man down only to lose by the odd goal in five.

“I don’t know how people do this, it’s heartbreaking,” says Reynolds of the 450 away fans making the late-night journey home from Berkshire. The following weekend the two men visit Wrexham for the first time and are mobbed by exuberant locals in the town centre. After meet-and-greets with the club’s staff, the players and the manager, Phil Parkinson, they end up on an epic booze-up in the Turf, where they are bombarded with increasingly strident and slurred opinions by landlord Wayne and his band of regulars.

During their first home game, a draw with Torquay, they sit alongside their expensive but suspended star striker, Paul Mullin. The scorer of 30 goals in what would turn out to be another failed promotion push last season, this particular character in what the makers are billing as an “underdog story” is reported to be on £4,000 a week plus bonuses as a non-league player.

Wrexham's Christian Dibble collects a high ball during the National League semi-final against Grimsby
Wrexham’s Christian Dibble collects a high ball during the National League playoff semi-final against Grimsby but his side lost 5-4. Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA

McElhenney and Reynolds have at least given every indication they are in for the long haul after finalising a purchase of the Racecourse Ground freehold that includes a covenant to ensure it will remain the home of Wrexham until at least 2115, unless the club outgrow it.

“I’ve only been the owner of a football club for a very short time,” says Reynolds, after Wrexham’s failure to make the playoffs under the glamorous new regime in May 2021, before he had seen them play in the flesh. “So far I’ve found it to be very time-consuming, emotionally exhausting, financially idiotic and utterly addictive.” After coming up just short again last season, Wrexham are a point from the top after 10 games and showing every sign they’re going to put their feted owners through the wringer once again.