Bearing in mind that the audience-pulling potential of anything to do with football has long been established - witness the breathless
eagerness with which Channel Five pounces upon any of the scraps from Sky's over-loaded table - the decision to tuck Frontline
Football away out of sight in a late night slot on Monday nights seems somewhat curious. A reluctant gesture, almost. A nostalgic
glance into the past, when television didn't know what the national game was for and when it hadn't yet realised to what myriad uses it
could be put.
"Oh, stick it after Newsnight, then."
Still, landmarks don't have to be large. And this was a notable landmark, even if you didn't notice or see it. Remarkable, for the
long-overdue coming of age of football-related documentaries: the schedulers might've failed to grasp it, but the series of four programmes
captured an essence that everything else has managed to miss. That essence? Not the excitement, not the business, the glamour, the drama,
the controversy, or any of the kerfuffle that surrounds the modern game. Instead, just that: the game. That very human thing
involving twenty-two people and a ball, and endless possibilities.
That's particularly remarkable when you consider that the topic of the programmes involved football in war zones, covering the build-up to
four World Cup qualifying matches (Congo versus South Africa, Bosnia versus Serbia, Palestine versus Iraq, and Columbia versus Venezuela). These are the circumstances
in which we're glibly told that football is put into perspective, somehow less important than life. Instead, Frontline Football proved
the opposite, the much more subtle truth: sometimes, football puts life into perspective.
Here, those perspectives were sometimes devastating. In Sarajevo, there are mass graveyards where goalposts used to stand. In Palestine,
an Israeli drone plane hovers noisily above the training pitch...and the star striker explains, in a matter-of-fact way, that it might open
fire, but probably not. But there's much more to these stories. Those involved don't regard football as a triviality, as something belittled
by the world that engulfs it. The game doesn't just survive in these circumstances, it becomes a vital outlet and a vehicle for expressions of
fierce pride, personal as well as national. The Congolese victory over South Africa is celebrated to the point of lunacy by a crowd of a
hundred and twenty thousand; in contrast, and also in parallel, a heavy Palestinian defeat in an empty stadium in Qatar is still viewed as a
moral victory, a triumph of the will required just to fulfil the fixture.
So, these were stories about the game. About people, whose game it is. For once, the suspicion of the media and its intentions that has become
so utterly, and perhaps understandably, ingrained in the Western game was rarely glimpsed here. The weakest of the documentaries - covering
the bitter, ugly confrontation between Bosnia and Serbia in a powerful, yet slightly predictable, way - was undermined by precisely that suspicion,
as Red Star Belgrade fans evaded questions about their involvement in Serbian atrocities. That was the exception to the rule, though. Elsewhere,
the willing participation of a varied cast of characters in the telling of their own stories produced some remarkably affecting television.
Crucial to the building of trust, Ben Anderson's charmingly guileless style enabled the camera to loiter harmlessly amid all sorts
of extraordinary goings-on. It's hard to believe that no-one thought about the camera as it filmed a bitter row between a Palestinian FA
official and the team's goalkeeper, nor that we were able to witness the Congolese manager settling up a hotel bill that his FA had neglected
to pay. Doors that are always closed were left open, no-one afraid of a stitch-up.
And they weren't stitched up, either. On the contrary, the stories were beautifully and simply realised. The bond of trust formed - often,
it seemed, extending to genuine warmth between film-maker and subject - brought out all sorts of lovely detail, those human touches that make
football what it is, in essence.
Most memorably, there was a deeply charming portrait of the harassed, hopeless, indefatigable, splendid manager of the Congo, the much-travelled
Claude Le Roy, as he clattered through the countless hurdles put in his path on the way to the game with South Africa. Terrible training
pitches, deserting players, absent players, unpaid bills, everything falling apart...and yet always with a shrug and a smile and a sigh and a bit of time
for the nice bloke from the BBC.
"By the way, have you been paid yet?" asked Anderson after an affectionate farewell amid the post-victory celebrations. "No, no." And a
shrug and a smile and a sigh. Lovely bloke, wonderful character. And, for once, a programme that did him, and countless others, full justice. Now,
all that remains is for the schedulers to do likewise. Repeat it, please.