Football consumption in the digital age has evolved into something that has taken our attention away from the pitch.
It’s last Tuesday night. Down the local pub with my mate, Luke. Italy versus Spain is on a big screen in the beer garden and we fully intend to watch it.
Only we don’t.
Ping. “Has the ball always been silver?” asks Lee on the London Drinks WhatsApp group.
“No, just since the semis,” is Chris’s response.
“Why does Eric Garcia have Eric on his shirt? It should be Garcia.” And on it goes. There are other exchanges with the Sunday League group and the School Dads group, too.
Observational nonsense, heated disagreements and occasional insight. There is a reassuring sense of collective spirit through it all, and such communication certainly enhances the drearier games, but it’s hardly conducive to paying attention.
Messaging has become the accompaniment to watching. And that is just the mildest vice. The gamblers have their fingers poised, monitoring the changing odds on the betting apps, ready to jump in and squander their money at any moment. Or tracking the ambitious accumulator they have placed before kick-off which involves an unlikely series of correct scores, bookings and number of corners falling into place about as often as a solar eclipse.
A lull in play? Quick check of Twitter. That can be a terrible sinkhole to slide down at any time, but especially during a match. Unless you’re desperate to know every thought in Piers Morgan’s consciousness while he’s not watching the same game. Tweet something, anything, just tweet it.
“Are we giving this game the attention it deserves?” asks Luke, back in the pub. And, of course, for the first half hour we hadn’t been. But at least he flagged it just in time to genuinely enjoy the remainder of the tournament’s best match so far.
The next evening England garnered a greater following but that just meant, with a larger audience, there were even more messages flying across the ether.
“Steve Holland has had his hair dyed quite dramatically,” remarked Bobby (London Drinks), two minutes in.
Technology has been the catalyst for our ever-diminishing attention spans. Even when missing a key moment with heads buried in phones and tablets there is the opportunity to hit the rewind button on the Sky box and watch it back. Although this can add a new element of jeopardy to the whole affair.
Here’s a question: If you’ve rewound the action, or paused it to nip to the loo, do you try to fast-forward in the quieter moments when the ball is out of play in order to catch up?
You don’t want to fast-forward past a goal. There is nothing worse than missing a goal.
But can you be content to watch the event delayed by a minute or so when at any time the drama could be ruined by a WhatsApp spoiler? The full-back is ambling over to the touchline to take a throw-in. Ping. “What a strike that was!” or “That’s never a red card.”
When more than one sporting event is taking place simultaneously, the multi-taskers spring into action proudly showing off their in-house technology set-up. Football on the big wall-mounted television, cricket on the laptop and darts on the ipad. Not missing a thing or not quite seeing anything?
Even those in the actual stadium are not immune from distraction.
When Harry Kane put the ball down on the penalty spot against Denmark it was the cue for thousands of fans to get their phones out ready to film the moment that they could already see with their own eyes. At least those with their mobiles trained on the pitch were vaguely paying attention.
Plenty more were actually filming themselves to get that not-so-spontaneous celebration clip ready to be uploaded to social media. As if England’s biggest moment in a generation was merely a convenient backdrop for a selfie.
Then there are those who are paid to watch the game: The journalists. This group are arguably more distracted than any other.
Aside from the difficulty of trying to compose a match report on their laptops as the game progresses, the digital age journo is often required to live tweet during the 90 minutes. Many will churn out a higher word count in tweets than you’ll find in War And Peace while still attempting to follow the action.
A thought should be reserved for the unfortunate thousands who are desperate to be involved but cannot watch the match tomorrow. The many employees keeping the country moving; cooking meals, serving drinks, driving buses, caring for patients.
And pity the poor photographer dispatched to capture that authentic image of the cheering politician in an England shirt, in the opportunistic hope of a victory publicity shot. Yes, the same politician who advocated booing our players before kick-off.
At 8pm tomorrow most of the nation will be sitting down to witness this historic event. Millions will be tuning in all over the land, glued to England versus Italy in the European Championship final. The lucky few will be at Wembley, the rest of us in front of a television. Everyone watching every single minute. We will be watching, won’t we?