Gerald Sinstadt: When in Rome, pretend it's Florence ... or Naples
THESE are troublesome times for television sports addicts. Throughout 2012 we've never had it so good. Month after month of escalating excitement. But now what?
No Tour de France, no Olympic Games, no Paralympics, no Grand Slam tennis tournaments, no Ryder Cup, Formula One is more or less settled while cricket is best given a miss.
There's England tonight, of course – but San Marino? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, help was available if you knew where to look. Azerbaijan, for instance.
That's where FIFA has been holding a World Cup for under-17s women. Complete with a mascot that may or may not be based on Mrs Beckham.
North Korea were the first winners in 2008. Two years later the title went to South Korea. This year Germany, Brazil, France, Nigeria and Ghana have been among the 16 nations competing.
So is Eurosport: early round coverage almost daily. I'm afraid you will have missed a few thrills.
Japan had seven different scorers in beating Mexico 9-0. Brazil just edged New Zealand 4-3, a game in which the Kiwis ended a run of 349 minutes without scoring.
There is, though, still time to catch the tournament at the business end.
The final between North Korea (again) and France is tomorrow. By then the commentators will be reasonably confident of identifying the players, but it will have been a test over 32 matches. Because my guess is they will have been operating 2,500 miles from Baku.
Crouched before a monitor, fingers firmly crossed, they will have been working – as we say in the trade – off-tube. It is a fraught experience.
A story is sometimes told of a match between two South American countries – call them Venezuela and Peru. It was, so the story goes, 10 minutes into the game before a caption revealed to the commentators that they were actually watching Chile versus Paraguay.
I don't know if the details are correct; the whole tale may be just an off-tube myth, but as one who has been there and still has the scars, it seems plausible to me.
When Serie A was Europe's sexiest league, I once spent a whole season flying to Stockholm every Sunday.
There, in a subterranean studio, a Polish commentator and I put words in our respective languages to games beamed from Italy.
Don't ask who was watching because nobody ever told me. The money was good, but the following season they found someone cheaper.
Even more bizarre were occasional trips to Rome to cover a Serie A game off-tube for viewers in Africa. One Sunday morning I arrived to learn of a possible TV technicians' strike.
I suggested to my producer we should get confirmation at the studio and then go to watch Roma's match before catching our usual flight home. If only.
Not to worry, signor, they said. Pictures were expected from a stadium somewhere. Which stadium? There was a shrug of the shoulders. Perhaps Fiorentina. Maybe Napoli. When will you know? Another shrug. Before we see the pictures? Maybe.
No point in arguing. This was Italy; they love a good argument, lots of arm-waving, and who wins doesn't matter. I had more important priorities. Fully prepared for the scheduled match in Milan, I now had less than two hours to do some homework. Perhaps Fiorentina. Maybe Napoli.
At two minutes to three I was confronted by a blank screen. Then a countdown clock appeared. That gave way to the exterior of a stadium which, mercifully, I recognised as the home of Fiorentina. From behind the control room glass, my producer waved – go ahead.
Now the true art of off-tube commentary is deeply embedded in pretence. To tell the viewer you are in Florence when you are actually in Rome would be deceitful.
But, having looked at the forecast in the paper, one could suggest without troubling one's conscience that the temperature in the stadium could well be in the 70s. The sense that commentator and players are in the same place does lend a certain authority.
The weather, and a few generalities about Fiorentina's season, carried me past three o'clock. We were still seeing the stadium exterior. As I prepared to apologise for a small technical delay, the screen changed to a football match. Fiorentina's violet shirts confirmed which match. I threw my Napoli notes on the floor and hoped for the best.
After about 10 minutes without a goal the exterior of the stadium reappeared. Only to be immediately replaced by more action. The light blue shirts of Napoli seemed to be playing well.
In my headphones I heard my producer say, "Carry on." I pressed the talk back key and said, "But this is Naples. I'm in Florence. And Napoli is scattered all over the floor."
"Never mind – just carry on."
"But what's the score? Has anyone been sent off?"
The stroppy technicians rescued me. The screen went blank and stayed blank. No more Fiorentina, no more Napoli.
Eurosport's technical link with Baku is doubtless more efficient. But my sympathies are still with the guys working off-tube.