45 years on, it remains one of the greatest controversies in footballing history: did Geoff Hurst’s shotreally cross the line in the 1966 World Cup Final? The Germans and the English are still at loggerheads, nearly half a century later, over the decision of Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst and his Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov at Wembley. The dispute has united the prehistoric era of television with the contemporary era of the Internet. Because, to defend their arguments, both sides can only show images from four different cameras, the sole evidence from the match.
That day, 30 July 1966 (the first year that the BBC broadcast in colour) is now simultaneously very distant in time yet very close in the collective memory. The controversy over Hurst’s decisive shot still lingers. So how long does a football match last? These days it is indisputable that the game’s narrative and its protagonists spread themselves far beyond the regulatory ninety minutes. The build-up is drawn out over days and even weeks before major occasions. The 24/7 cycle has led to a saturation of the sporting press, which has turned to sensationalist and celebrity news formats to fill the space generated, a continuum only interrupted by the short space occupied by the match itself, from which an entire new series of debates is generated.
The discussions can drag on for eternity, as in the case of Hurst’s goal. And all over a fraction of a second, one frame which people theorise about ad infinitum. Following in the same vein, in recent decades audiovisuals have dissected with great precision everything that happens in a sporting scenario, multiplying the locations and precision of the cameras. But in spite of all this, it seems that there is never enough. Only in a few cases has this close interconnection between sport and the audiovisual reached the point at which the image has an absolute value: an increasing number of disciplines incorporate the video judge figure. The appearance of slow-motion, frame by frame replays – introduced by ABC in 1967 for a downhill skiing competition – meant, for the first time, that the sportsperson could be seen in closer detail by viewers from the comfort of their own homes than by the spectators paying to watch the event in situ. The arrival of slow motion responded to purely aesthetic criteria, but it raised a new layer of reality with its own value, capable of modifying the meaning of what was captured by the human eye. From that moment on, its strength has increased ceaselessly. In tennis, not even players dispute the verdict of Hawk-Eye. The screen possesses the absolute truth on what has really happened on the playing field.
The evolution of the audiovisual narrative in broadcasts has allowed sports fans a close-up of events giving them access to extremely rich detail. The briefest moment can be recreated and analysed, raising new layersof reality. This is the blossoming of sport as an aesthetic discipline, incapable, however, of eclipsing its competitive aspect. In fact, despite the creative development of the way in which matches are reported, the important part continues to be the game itself, beyond its television narration. The quality of the image is merely a support. The important thing is to be able to see a good match on any medium – on the screen of a mobile phone, if necessary, even if we lose definition. The narration of the sporting spectacle does not only involve aesthetic enjoyment, but always provides new criteria for evaluating competitor performance. It may be an art, but it is one for mass consumption, and one without any time for digestion: its filming reaches millions of homes around the world, live.
Recognising the competitive disadvantage for spectators at the stadium (expensive tickets, less quality of image), many clubs include the screenas part of the experience on the playing field. Football grounds have filled up with video scoreboards and giant, high-definition screens with exclusive images of the players and statistics in real time. At the same time, however, videos expose so many details that many federations try to prevent the game being watched via the video scoreboards of the stadium where it is being played: the aim is to limit the spectators’ field of knowledge, leaving them in the dark so as to avoid, should they see a refereeing error, their protesting too loudly – and for good reason. This fracture between club and supporters is increasingly being overcome by the screens of mobile phones, where the images are reproduced virally.
And, in spite of everything, spectators continue getting up from the sofa – where they can now see matches in 3D – to pay for increasingly expensive entrance tickets and go out to suffer the cold or the heat of the terraces. Despite the evolution of the television narrative, the experience of seeing their idol in person continues compensating thousands of fans every weekend. The “screenisation” of sport is just another crutch for this interest, a support that lengthens the experience, but never the origin.
Visibility, in any case, is basic for any sports communication project. Nowadays there are many sporting federations that pay for television broadcasts out of their own pocket as a promotional tool. And, if necessary, television operators are allowed to change norms and introduce time out at will in order to insert well-paid advertising. Without the screen, you do not exist. If you are there, however implausibleit might seem, you can start to build up an identity. In fact, the great majority of professional teams have their own audiovisual department in order to control as far as possible the message received by their supporters.
At the opposing extreme, however, the spectator has ceased to be a simple consumer of images. First of all he started to give opinions on what he saw. And as soon as it was possible, he himself became a producer. Why? Why does one think that he would prefer to relive sporting moments through his own, low-quality recordings, rather than through professional television images? For some reason, this audiovisual subgenre has had a great deal of success on the Internet. Despite the mass industrialisation of the sporting machine, the relationship between fans and teams continues to be very close, personal, with nuances and different stories to those of the spectator in the next seat; the small camera on their mobile phones allowing this unique bond.
This relationship between fan and idol reaches its definitive union on the screen of videogames. The child who imitated his favourite player in the school playground can now, for once and for all, be as skilful as the world’s best. This identification becomes supplantation to create a new reality, an endless championship at the whim of each individual. The emotion of sport is transferred to the home through the screen. And, besides the videogame, this also happens on mobile devices from which we can control sporting bets or our fantasy league team. The screen enriches the fan’s experience, he is no longer a mere supporter but can also start to control new layers of reality generated in the sporting event.
The fan wants to put himself in the player’s place because in no other sphere does the cinematographic figure of the star have so much power as in sport. With the repetition of legendary moments, idols are built, heroes to be admired for their performance. The power of the image may, on occasions, exceed the purely competitive factor, and generate interest in sporting events, even when no great title is at stake. The Harlem Globetrotters were the first example, a sporting version of the travelling circus show. In the 21st century, one of the season’s highlights for the NBA is its All-Star weekend featuring the Slam Dunk contest: an aesthetic enjoyment for the spectator which has no bearing on the outcome of the League.
The paroxysm of this protagonism acquired by the sporting fan arrives with the talk shows. Sporting discussions have made them leap from coffee time to the radio and finally, to television, where they have become a show in themselves; the offer has multiplied exponentially in recent years. In the most successful cases, it does this with a new subcategory: the sports programme that has no match images. The objective is to convert the discussion into a character in itself, into a polemicist capable of generating philias and phobias, as much or more as the sportspersons it debates. Aggressiveness has been transferred off the field, and jumps out from the screen to trap the spectator. The football match, definitively, lasts longer than ninety minutes. It doesn’t matter if we have no better images of the phantom goal by Hurst. Even if they existed, the argument would remain alive.