The World Cup, USA 1994. England wasn’t in it so interest in the UK was muted but, still, we had a fan’s interest in the big games and some Irish in us, and so found ourselves at Webmedia Group chairman Steve Bowbrick’s house, watching Saint Jack take Ireland further than anyone thought possible.
Steve was far more excited by the Internet than the football and, with an evangelist’s enthusiasm for possible converts, he made us log on to discover the wonders of this new medium in its coverage of the tournament. It was slow and cranky but we found a World Cup site, complete with everything expected from a good wall chart plus useful things like match reports and group positions. Only thing was, this was late Sunday and nothing had been updated since Friday. If a week is a long time in politics, two days in football can mean the double.
Four years on and there are more sites devoted to France 98 than England fans with tickets – but which ones are worth logging on to? At first glance, there’s little to distinguish the big sites from each other. The Beeb, BBC Online, Snickers, Sky, The Guardian and Capital Gold all boast comprehensive sites featuring news, groups, games, competitions and a wealth of facts on the tournament and teams taking part, with serious amounts of background info. Each is impressive in its breaking news and front pages, all of which had been updated within the last couple of hours when I visited (on a Sunday evening), so full marks there.
All this augurs well for the speed of information needed from this week onwards, when match reports, statistics and team news will need to appear immediately if the medium is to be taken seriously.
That’s not to say the sites are being offered as competition to TV and, more obviously, radio, because they have something unique to the medium: live chat, forums and discussion groups. Here fans can become involved in the analysis and group discussions that are the lifeblood of football, and they can do so with fellow fans, pundits and stars for little outlay and no engaged tones.
But one important area that the sites will miss out on is live action, either visual or audio, because when the media rights to the 1998 World Cup were being negotiated 11 years ago, no one (not even Steve Bowbrick) knew this voracious new medium would be around. Some sites, such as Capital Gold’s, will use audio for interviews and highlights, and many are finding inventive uses for their audio facility. BBC Online’s site has a nice section called World Cup Vinyls in which you can hear snippets of England and Scotland songs before voting on the best and worst ones.
It’s worth checking out less well-known but well-respected sites such as Football 365, edited by Under The Moon presenter Danny Kelly. Its genius is that it isn’t really a site but a customised on-line football newspaper, downloaded as daily e-mail and perused off line. It is well-structured, with clear graphics and easy navigation. And as for the thousands of unofficial, quirky sites out there, the search engines register 150 000 000 hits, which should easily keep us all going until World Cup 2002.
BBC Online site: bbc.co.uk/worldcup
Snickers site: snickers.com/
The Guardian: football.guardian.co.uk
Capital Gold: worldcup1998.co.uk/
Football 365: football365.co.uk/