I ain’t such a fanatic but every now and then when schedule allows, I do watch English football matches and there is no better place to watch football than Africa.The 2016 – 2017 English Premier league season is now upon us, and players are in the midst of the first few weeks of the season.As I sit down to watch the English Premier League matches on television, it is worth reflecting on the role played by the broadcast media in general and commentators in particular in shaping public perceptions of English football that was associated with hooliganism in 1980s. Football commentary has been a crucially important conduit for linking fans with games, and inculcating them into its romance and mythology.Football broadcasting began in England in 1920s with the introduction of an independent commercial broadcasting system. While some commercial radio stations provide progressive scores and reviews of play, others provide simulated live commentaries. Using a feed of from England, commentators in Africa studio describe the play as if they were present at the ground.These broadcasts have come to be known as “virtual football” by millions of football fans who cannot afford to pay subscription fees charged by DSTV, a Pay Tv service provider from South Africa that controls more than 90% of English Premier League broadcasting rights. Millions of African families huddle around radios late into the evening, pretending it was all happening in real time. Football broadcasts generate large radio audiences. During the Manchester Derby few weeks ago in what was dubbed the battle between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in which the latter’s team won 2-1, nearly 30% of households with radios tuned into the match broadcasts, a figure which exceeded the audiences for peak time programmes.According to newspaper reports, the quality of commentary on some occasions is so clear that it was indistinguishable from live tv broadcasts. The introduction of Pay television to African changed everything, but not necessarily for the better.
The DSTV continues to be the home of Football broadcasting, and but doesn’t control radio like it does with television broadcasts. However, the commercial stations have also sought the right to broadcast English Premier League but in vain. While this is viewed as good thing in principle, the DSTV management is concerned that they did not understand the games etiquette, and cited the hyper critical sniping of radio commentators, claiming they had said things that would not be tolerated in normal Supersport presentations.As it has turned out, not only has television come to dominate English Football broadcasting, but the Supersport’s influence over the game has gone up the roof. While the DSTV hasn’t lost the TV rights, radio broadcasts continue to attract sizeable audiences whenever there are matches being played. The current crop of commentators, which include likes of Gary Neville, Peter Drury, Jon Champion and John Dyke, has maintained Supersport’s status as an authoritative and entertaining source of news and views in Sub Saharan Africa.It has also continued the long tradition of radio commentary that blends science with the art, the technical know-how, and the humour and satire. The Star Times has done the same in the post-DSTV Bundesliga period.However commercial television commentators now get most of the kudos. While a lot of their commentating is illuminating, much of it is also banal and weighed down by ponderous clichés. The likes of Jon Champion have delivered moments of glorious insight, but they have also manufactured lengthy periods of tedious asides masquerading as quick wit.The English commentators have been more idiosyncratic. The heavy northern English accents of Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher of this world has been balanced by the South African commentators in the past but they no longer do pre match and post match analysis and viewers depend on the Her Majesty boys for all commentary.Overall, though, Football would not be the same without its commentators. Despite their frequent biases, opinionated claims and fractured syntax, they bring fresh and colourful insights into the lives of English football fans in Africa. In my view, viewers are far better off with them than without them.