A TV reporter commentates in the rain. Photo: Getty
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Ex-pros fill the pundits’ chairs – but giving a good game isn’t the same as talking a good game

A problem arises when it is assumed that professional playing experience is the sole source of authority.

A hot day leads me to take refuge in Tate Britain (galleries are best when we ask the least of them). In the cool of the basement, I found myself wandering around “Looking for Civilisation”, an exhibition celebrating the life and collection of Kenneth Clark. I spent longest in the room showing highlights of Civilisation, the tele­vision series for which he is best known. In one episode, describing 18th-century England as the “paradise of the amateur”, Clark talked in an especially personal tone. “There was a freshness and freedom of mind,” he argued about Wren, Vanbrugh and Burlington, “that is sometimes lost in the rigidly controlled classifications of the professional. And they were independent.”

Clark had inherited that tradition. He was an authority but only briefly a professional academic. His artistic education – he began collecting Japanese prints at 12 – was founded on leisure and love, not the pursuit of a career path. For all his achievements, he confessed he was born into the idle rich. “Many people were richer,” he explained of his family, “but few were idler.” Aged 30, he was appointed director of the National Gallery. What were his credentials at the time? The same amateur expertise that he identified in Vanbrugh and the Earl of Burlington.

In a very different context, we are now experiencing what happens when the tide turns against the non-professional. The television coverage of the World Cup has been criticised for its unenlightening punditry, almost exclusively provided by well-known former professional footballers. This has prompted a lament for a bygone era of broadcasting, with the drabness of today’s World Cup analysis contrasted with the articulateness and affection of a previous generation of sports broadcasters.

It is true that Peter O’Sullevan, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and John Arlott – all great voices, in every sense – had not been professional sportsmen. Their amateur spirit sustained the depth of their knowledge and love of their sports.

But the accusation that it is all the fault of the ex-pros needs serious qualification. (Full disclosure: I am an ex-pro who now commentates on cricket for the BBC.) The trend of using ex-pros extends far beyond football: every broadcaster does it, every­where. And they should, up to a point. Who would not want to hear the views of someone who has been on the same stage, perhaps playing against the same opponents? Eliminate ex-players and you lose a great tradition that runs from Peter Alliss and Richie Benaud through to Gary Neville and Roberto Martínez.

A problem only arises when it is assumed that professional playing experience is the sole source of authority. We know this is untrue because some superb managers, such as Arsène Wenger, never played at the top level. In the media, the mistake has two manifestations: undue reverence for the views of former stars, however formulaic, and a matey (and very English) suspicion of anyone who stands apart from the clubby level of debate.

The second issue can be dealt with easily enough. There are some brilliant football writers and analysts who never played the game professionally: invite them to join some of the television panels, ask them serious questions and respect their answers. There is a perception that the public won’t tolerate expert opinions coming from people who haven’t played at the highest level. I am unconvinced by this. In my experience, viewers and listeners are much more interested in the quality of the ideas than the “credentials” of the speaker.

The opinions of great players, meanwhile, should be judged on merit rather than confused with their reputations as sportsmen. Great players can certainly tell us things that only great players know. But in some respects the qualities that make a star performer are fundamentally different from the skills of an analyst.

Playing sport is about taking risks. Every attacking shot, each midfield run, every bold second serve: they all require a necessary element of risk. Having decided to take a risk, however, great players are able to behave as though it is not a risk, after all. Conviction – or blind faith – often marks out the true champions. If asked to identify one quality that separates the best players from the merely good ones, I would reply that it is their ability to commit wholeheartedly to their decisions. This quality influences their chances of ultimately being proved right. Hence the two central qualities in a sportsman (judgement and then executing those decisions) are intertwined.

Some players – Zinedine Zidane or Johan Cruyff – can sense the whole pitch and see how their actions shape the wider picture. Yet most of them focus on the task at hand with understandable tunnel vision. That is one reason why brilliant sportsmen often find other disciplines unexpectedly difficult. They continue to form judgements and continue to commit to them entirely and yet, off the pitch, they are baffled why their epic self-belief now has zero effect on the outcome. Someone else is now kicking the ball. It’s up to him. Their judgements, in effect, exist in a vacuum; conviction cannot help any longer.

The person you would select to play with total self-belief, even against steep odds (that is, a performer), is rarely the same person you would want to identify and accurately describe the state of probabilities and how they can be altered by tactics (a pundit).

Expecting every great player to become a great pundit is like expecting every great actor to become a fine director. He might take to it; some certainly do. However, given that there are now so many media slots to fill, it’s time to widen the talent pool.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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