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6 September 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 7:58am

I wasn’t shocked to see spitting in the Women’s World Cup – but I was when the BBC blurred it out

By Giles Smith

Setting whole new standards for the protection of sensitive viewers, the BBC’s production team at the Women’s World Cup has just drawn a veil of pixels over pictures of a footballer spitting. What next? Bleeping a dog barking?

Admittedly, this was possibly controversial spitting. The footballer in question was Cameroon’s Augustine Ejangue, who landed some phlegm on the arm of England’s Toni Duggan during a fractious round of 16 meeting between the two nations. Reviewing this incident at half-time, and trying to establish whether or not it was an accident, the BBC applied to the lower part of Ejangue’s face and neck the treatment television commonly reserves for celebrities’ car number plates and people with pending court cases. 

Well, it was Sunday afternoon, I guess. Children were watching. Even so, I scoured my memory, but could not recall ever being protected digitally, at any time of the day, controversy or otherwise, from the sight of spit in the men’s game. On the other hand, I could recall plenty of times when I had wished I had been – and not least of all the World Cup of 2018 when the fad for “carb rinsing” properly took hold, and saw players snatching up bottles, swilling the contents around their mouths for a while and then ejecting long streams of fluid at will. (The taste buds fool the body into expecting the arrival of carbohydrates, apparently. Or so it was claimed in a thoughtful investigation into “carb rinsing” launched in response by the New York Times.)

And then, coming to think of it, there was that other incident in the men’s tournament last year, coincidentally in a round of 16 tie involving England – against Colombia – when Jamie Vardy was seen using his chewing gum to blow a bubble. That’s not an easy trick (a New York Times piece would find some traction here, too), yet Vardy’s nonchalant delivery was deemed, in ensuing discussions, to have subtracted from the gravity of the occasion, what with England pressing for a place in the quarter-finals, and also to have breached several boundaries relating to taste. It was not, however, pixelated in any of the coverage.

In the case of Ejangue, then, one had to wonder – with a wince – whether someone at the BBC had identified something they felt could fall into the category “conduct unbecoming a lady”. Certainly the decision to pixelate prevented one from drawing any plausible conclusion about the issue. Based on a careful review of the uncensored images available online, my verdict was that Ejangue had been careless rather than malicious, but, on the BBC, with the relevant portion of the image jiggling around like the beginning of a migraine, there was absolutely no telling whether she spat in anger or in self-defence (from accumulated mucus) or even, frankly, whether she spat at all.

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It was an unusually foggy moment in coverage that has otherwise been notable above all for immense clarity. This is the eighth Women’s World Cup and the first one the BBC has shown live in its entirety, with women properly stocking the punditry panels (Alex Scott, Hope Solo) and the commentary box (Robyn Cowen). Yet, in an odd twist, the reliably contrarian Rebekah Vardy (who is, among other things, the partner of the aforementioned chewing-gum bubble-blower) surveyed the all-female commentary team that the BBC assembled for England vs Scotland and wondered aloud on Twitter what had become of equality.

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Now, you would think that women’s football was owed a few more years of single-sex panelling before men could be considered the under-represented party, but this is clearly not the case for everyone. Also, Vardy seemed to be overlooking the contributions of Dion Dublin, who (not during England vs Scotland, it’s true, but on several other big occasions) has been a simply huge presence on the right-hand side of Gabby Logan’s otherwise female punditry platform.

Indeed, Dublin is on such a different scale to his surroundings that he seems to have come from another programme altogether, possibly one based on a book by Roald Dahl. We’ve not seen anything like it since Martin Bayfield (6ft 10in) risked accusations of ventriloquism by standing next to Jason Robinson (5ft 8in) during ITV’s rugby World Cup coverage of 2015. Still, Dublin is enthusiastic, engaged and shows no inclination to mansplain, despite being the resident man. The same goes for Jonathan Pearce who, according to my notes, has so far only once found himself saying “well done” – when a goalkeeper dived to block a cross.

Meanwhile, we have learned that the video assistant referee’s (VAR) ability to quash dispute is only as strong as the players’ will to go along with it. Disappointed by two video verdicts in England’s favour, even after they had seen them on the big screen, the Cameroon team seemed to be on the verge of abandoning the game in protest. Given that none of this would have happened if the match had been under the sole command of an old-fashioned, analogue referee, it seems that, far from neutralising the spectacle, VAR is introducing whole new levels of frothing controversy in ways we had scarcely dared imagine. 

Afterwards, though, the argument quickly divided between those who thought Cameroon’s behaviour had brought women’s football into disrepute, and those who pointed out that this was a false distinction these days, and that it was patronising to speak about “women’s football” in this context, rather than, simply, “football”. Perversely, this felt like an axiomatic dispute to be having. Only when things that happen in women’s football are universally agreed to have the power to discredit the whole sport will we know equality has been achieved. And for that to happen, the BBC will definitely have to stop censoring the spitting. 

This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order