As Not Seen On TV - International Football of the 1980s

(*This article is a reproduction of a piece written for the now defunct Blog site which dates from July 2012 covering past coverage of international football tournaments in the aftermath of Euro 2012)

Euro 2012 has dominated prime time viewing on the two mainstream channels on British TV for the last three weeks. According to Louise Taylor’s Guardian Blog this week: ‘As Roy Hodgson and his England players begin the process of analysing precisely where their Euro 2012 campaign went wrong, executives at BBC and ITV are celebrating unexpectedly excellent tournament viewing figures’.

Despite there being numerous TV channels in the modern era, England’s defeat to Italy gained an amazing 20.3 million viewers – accounting for a 67.8% share of the overall TV audience. This was a figure exceeding that of Prince William’s wedding and the Queen’s recent Jubilee celebrations. Viewing figures for this year’s tournament has regularly reached an eight figure audience – even Portugal v Czech Republic had hit the 10 million figure – which is no mean feat in the multi- channel era. It isn’t really a shock in 2012 that an international football tournament not only has saturation coverage, but also scores such healthy ratings, even when England are not playing.

Not always has this been the case however. As a 33 year old, my earliest memory of a big international tournament was Mexico ’86. However, Euro ’84 should have registered somewhere in my consciousness, surely? Well no, and given the level of coverage given to the tournament, nor is it a surprise. There had been no British representation in Euro ’84 – which back then was reduced to just eight sides, with the winners and runners up of each group competing for a semi-final place. Though both the BBC and ITV had produced their own highlights programmes, the British TV coverage of Euro ’84 consisted of just one group match between Spain and West Germany and the final itself, which was between France and Spain.

As this tournament was going on, England carried out a tour of South America which kicked off with Brazil in the Maracana. England became the first side to beat Brazil in the Maracana for 27 years, everyone also remembers it for the unbelievable goal scored by John Barnes (above) – the moment he ‘went native’ in Brazil. What many people don’t remember 28 years on from the event however is what the nation was doing at the time Barnesy dribbled his way through the Brazilian defence – which was watching Cilla Black belting out the theme tune over the closing credits to her Sunday night TV show ‘Surprise Surprise’.

Despite signing up coverage of an international fixture which most would deem a box office draw, ITV felt the only surprises the general public expected to see that Sunday night was which tearful long-lost acquaintances Cilla would be reuniting. ITV however did show the second half live, which saw a Mark Hateley header confirm a memorable 2-0 victory for England. The whole premise of just showing live coverage of the 2nd half might seem odd to younger viewers of football, it was however fairly common in years gone by with ‘lesser’ internationals in order to fit football into the schedules around ratings winners in peak viewing times.


Even during the Mexico '86 World Cup - though from the last sixteen knockout phase onwards all matches were shown live in their entirety, during the group phase in some instances only the second half of games were shown live in order to accommodate editions of the early evening BBC chat show 'Wogan' or ITV's more popular soaps, sitcoms and game shows (though obviously not in the case of the competing home nations - England, Scotland and Northern Ireland - which were shown live). 

The idea of showing just the second half of live games carried on as late as the early 90s and included coverage of England’s defeat to Norway in 1993. The idea of not providing live coverage of an international tournament with no British involvement also persisted into the following decade, with ITV toying with the idea of greatly scaling back their coverage of the USA ’94 World Cup.  This however didn’t come to fruition, mainly through ITV’s realisation that World Cup 1AM kick offs were a better night time ratings winner than the James Whale Show or WCW Wrestling, as well as the fact that football viewers in the UK were becoming more internationalist in their viewing habits as a result of the success of Football Italia on Channel 4. Every single match of the Euro 2012 Championships has been shown live in its entirety and in an era where both the BBC and ITV have eight channels between them and the red button multi-screen at their disposal, it’s no great surprise that it should be the case.

However, back in the days when you could count the number of UK TV channels on the fingers of one hand, this was not always so. By the time of the Espana ‘82 World Cup most games were shown live on British TV – most of those that weren’t were games played at the same time as those shown live. Tournament highlights which the British public were denied the chance to see as it unveiled included Hungary thumping El Salvador by a record scoreline of 10-1, Algeria beating West Germany 2-1 and Sheikh Fahid Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah ordering his Kuwaiti team off the pitch and convincing the referee to disallow a French goal (below) 

The opening ceremony however, along with the opening match of the tournament between Argentina and Belgium, despite not clashing with any other game, was not shown on British TV at all.  Neither were any of Argentina’s group fixtures. The reason for this was the on-going Falklands Conflict - a month earlier Ricky Villa was dropped from the Tottenham Squad to face QPR in the 1982 FA Cup Final for the self-same reason. By the time of the Second group phase, Buenos Aires had surrendered the Islands and British TV viewers were allowed to see Argentina's matches. Jimmy Greaves had opined in the ITV studio to the nation at large that he'd be happy to see Argentina lose even a game of dominoes. Jimmy was granted his wish as Argentina was defeated by Italy and then Brazil – the latter game saw a young Diego Maradona red carded for lashing out at an opponent (below).

The history of televised international tournaments goes back to the World Cup of 1954, held in Switzerland, however with selected matches that had a poor reception. The creation of the European Broadcasting Union’s Eurovision Network in the mid-1950s – famed for its much maligned pan-European song contest –had meant that more extensive coverage was available from 1958 onwards.  However only one match from this tournament could be relayed at any given time, and many matches in the 1958 World Cup had been played simultaneously. This had meant that only two of England’s four games in the tournament were shown live. In Chile four years later, England fans had to rely on highlights two days post-match as no live coverage of the tournament was shown on UK television. The technology to broadcast live from the Americas to Europe was non-existent until, ironically, six days after the close of the 1962 World Cup when the Telstar satellite made history with the first trans-Atlantic live pictures.

The 1966 World Cup, held in England, had made history for being the first tournament to have live coverage broadcast worldwide. With the exception of the Euro ’68 third place play-off match against the Soviet Union, where the BBC showed only the 2nd half, from here after all England games at major tournaments were shown live in their entirety on British TV – bar one, which was not shown at all. After England were knocked out of Euro ’88 after two defeats in the group phase, their last group game against the Soviet Union was passed over in favour of the decider between Eire v Holland – both of whom could have gone through and our close neighbour - the Irish, needing just a draw to progress to the Semis. The only other comparable instance to this was when England played San Marino in late 1993 and the BBC had switched mid match to Wales v Romania. Wales that night were a missed penalty away from qualification and hence a more exciting fare than England drubbing a tiny minnow but reliant on results elsewhere which never came through. The England-Soviet encounter was one of only two games on British TV that were not shown throughout the whole of Euro ’88. Three of the four TV channels of the time had the rights to show the match, two of whom – BBC2 and ITV – would have probably shown as an alternative an old film, which was hardly a ratings winning alternative.

However the culture of British TV in the 1980s, where the only alternative to state-owned Public Service broadcasters - the BBC and Channel 4 - was a corporatist ITV, had been less about chasing ratings and as a result more sensitive to criticism from irate viewers who didn’t follow football. This had made a meaningless England fixture easier to shun.  Despite that however, Football in the 1980s also simply didn't cut it on the ratings front - for example in 1990 England's World Cup fixtures against Eire and West Germany both featured in that year's top ten most watched programmes.  In Mexico '86, not one of England's matches - nor any of the other World Cup fixtures for that matter - featured within the top ten for that year.  Barry McGuigan's defence of his World Featherweight title to Denilo Cabrera in contrast was the sixth most watched programme of the year with 18.3 million viewers. Clearly, pre-Italia ’90 England internationals were not quite the ratings draw they were later to become.


(in addition to the article above, to underline the historic growth in football's popularity by 2012 in comparison to the 1980s - three of England's four matches played in Euro 2012 featured within the top ten most viewed shows of the year.  In fact seven of the ten had been sports events, compared to just the one in 1986!)