The greatest show on earth
A rectangular-shaped grass field, two goals, a ball, twenty-two players : both the setting and the actors are ready for performance. Football is the most popular show on Earth, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar will have proven it once again. The unstoppable rise of the “ beautiful game ” is closely linked with that of television and broadcasting. So, just like the players, this special feature will zigzag between grass pitches and television screens.
For 28 days, controversies over the awarding of the FIFA World Cup to Qatar, working conditions on stadium construction sites or the ecological footprint of the event will not be heard. Everything will be drowned out by the cheering, shouting and emotions of 1.5 million spectators in the Qatari stadiums and 5 billion television viewers.
The latter figure, estimated by FIFA, would be a new record, sur- passing the previous record of 3.45 billion reached in 2018 in Russia. The World Cup, broadcast this year in 90 countries, is de facto the most watched sporting event in the world. And football, with more than 250 million players in 200 countries (including 130,000 pro- fessionals) and 1.3 billion fans, is by far the most popular sport in the world.
A very strong presence indeed for a game of multiple origins.
Traces of no-hand ball games date back as far as antiquity and have then been recorded all over the world. From ancient Greeks to the Han dynasty and native Americans. However, it was in Europe that more or less violent versions opposing cities or villages made their way across the centuries and where we find its origins claimed today. More precisely, in England : since the early 19th century, there had been attempts at standardising the multiple variants existing in public schools. Finally, the “ Laws of the Game ” set the rules in 1863 and, since 1870, only the goalkeepers have the right to touch the ball with their hands. Hence, modern football was born.
Football’s popularity is closely linked to that of television and vice versa. However, the love story – which may appear so obvious today – was not love at first sight.
The first images of a football match were made by a forerunner of today’s cameras, as early as 1898. The first match broadcast by public television, the BBC, was a friendly game in 1937. The shaky footage, limited for technical reasons, from positions in an area near the stadium, are not very convincing. It was not until the post-war period that history started speeding up, buoyed by the return of major sporting events, the rise of public television and the increase in the number of TV sets.
The first World Cup being broadcast was in 1954 (Switzerland). A year later, the BBC started broadcasting the newly created European Cup, as well as the first specialised broadcasts. But distrust prevailed. European football authorities were concerned that football on television would decrease the audience in stadiums (especially in those of amateur clubs).
In 1955, the UEFA decided that national associations (and not public television) would have full power to authorise or not broadcasting football matches. Thus, even major international matches were denied coverage, much to the dismay – and even anger – of fans and television viewers.
During the nineteen-sixties, English stadiums were progressively equipped with new lighting systems, which made it possible to broadcast European matches on weeknights, and not to overlap with regular Sunday games. However, the growing success of these broadcasts made federations impose new restrictions, again to protect national matches. The tension would last until the late nineteen- eighties, when private television companies came into play and the explosion of broadcasting rights turned the rules upside down.
The case of stadium lights is interesting, as it shows to what extent technology and football have mutually influenced each other. Broadcasting has boosted football’s popularity and football has boosted new broadcast technologies. The World Cup, for instance, has contributed to the adoption of satellite transmissions.
There have certainly been quite a few revolutions. Camera zooms, slow motion, introduced in the early nineteen-sixties in the US and adopted a few years later by European football. Recording, which makes it possible to review an action and dissect it. Colour film, with a first match broadcast by the BBC in 1969. High Definition and then 4K. Increasingly flat and large television screens. World Cups, like the Olympic Games, are always preceded by a peak in the sales of new material. Football shooting styles have also progressed enormously. Long shots from the stands still exist, but these sequences are enriched and boosted by a multitude of different shooting styles. Pitch-side shoulder cameras bring television viewers among the players. Spidercams – suspended, stabilised and remote-controlled – make them fly over the pitch. The introduction of the latter two innovations is attributed to the same person, Garrett Brown, the inventor of Steadycam (see CONNECTED 11).
Football has always been the popular sport par excellence, a source of sports and identity-related challenges on a local scale. Thanks to broadcasting technologies, its dramaturgy has entered a new era. The players, who used to be filmed from a distance, are now followed by close-up shots, showing their looks, their expressions (and their well-groomed haircuts). They used to be athletes ; they have become actors as well. Actors whose emotions, as much as their footwork, keep millions, even billions of television viewers spellbound.
Technologies have turned football into “ the biggest show on Earth ”.