Sunday, 27 April 2014

FIFA World Cup - In captions (Part 1)

At any given moment while you're watching a game of football on TV, you can tell what the current score is and how much time has elapsed. That's all down to the caption in the corner of your screen, a computer graphic that's been a part of 'Soccer on the Box' for the last couple of decades.

Turn the clock back further still and you'll find less and less information on display during important matches. As we discussed back in July 2012, the European Championships could barely summon up an 'R' for action replays before 1980, but this is a World Cup year, so when did we start seeing on-screen captions for the world's greatest football competition? The story starts nearly 50 years ago...

World Cup 1966

As host nation, England were able to boast not only some of the best football stadia in the world but also two of the best broadcasters - BBC and ITV. Together, they covered the entire 1966 tournament and beamed live pictures around the world via satellite - a World Cup first.

Had the tournament taken place a year later, it might just have been broadcast in colour (on the BBC, at least), but for the time being the action taking place across England was shown in black and white.

As far as the captions were concerned, there weren't that many to be seen. Generally speaking, coverage began with a line of Helvetica text informing the viewer who the two competing teams were, shortly followed by the two team line-ups shown in their positions on the pitch. A nice touch and very useful for all concerned.

Whenever a goal went in (or whenever anyone could be bothered to put the appropriate board up), another caption displayed the score, and occasionally at quarter hour junctures, a clock dial told you how much time had passed too.

But that was pretty much it. No names of players, no animation... no nothing. Everything else you needed to know was conveyed audibly by the commentators, so heaven help you if you were hard of hearing.

World Cup 1970

Colour. Rich, oversaturated colour. The ninth World Cup was made more glorious by the advance in technology that allowed the sunshine of Mexico to permeate through all our TV screens. The football was good - brilliant at times - and the captions tried their best to match the quality of the gameplay.

On the plus side, a far wider range of information was displayed. Before the start of every match, viewers were told which two teams were playing, a full player listing for both sides and the names and nationalities of the officials. There was even a caption to explain who was playing in which coloured kit - some clever thinking to help those watching in black and white, although you needed a basic understanding of Spanish to decipher what was being said.

When the match was underway, current scores were displayed from time to time, and there was the added bonus of player names appearing whenever there was a hiatus in the match. All very handy for the viewer watching at home, trying desperately to identify the players featured in their Radio or TV Times magazine.

Action replays were shown with a bilingual 'Repeat' caption, just in case anyone thought they were experiencing a slowed down pre-Groundhog Day loop in their general existence. It needs reminding that action replay technology had only been introduced four years previously and viewers needed to be told what they were watching accordingly. Once the replay was over, a 'Vivo/Live' caption often was shown to make more explicit the difference between recorded and ongoing footage.

As for telling people how much time had passed, very little was done to satisfy this particular need, although if you were lucky you might just get a big number slapped in the top-right hand corner when you least expected it.

So far, so good, but it wasn't all sunshine and light in the Mexico '70 captions department. For one thing, it seemed there was a two-font system in place; some captions using the Helvetica seen during the 1966 World Cup, while at other times a strange seriffed typeface was employed.

Then there were the caption boards themselves. On more than the odd occasion, they were slanting backwards or completely askew to the point where it was difficult to read the text at all. Whoever was working in the vision mixing team behind the scenes clearly had no idea how all this stuff was supposed to work.

Further improvement was needed, even if it meant going back to basics to do so...

World Cup 1974

The eyes of the world focused on West Germany in 1974 as an ever-expanding World Cup included exciting and unknown teams as diverse as Zaire and Australia. Decent captions were needed to help the armchair viewer keep up with developments throughout the tournament, and this time they were clearer, if rather rudimentary.

A top-to-bottom team listing (the like of which was familiar to viewers of Match of the Day or The Big Match) was used once again for the preamble to every match. The font was Futura, but the name of the team being shown wasn't immediately apparent as the West German broadcasters opted for three-letter abbreviations instead. Additional captions were once again used to show who was occupying the substitutes bench.

As in 1970, two fonts were used at different times during the tournament, occasionally on the same caption. To show the score, a mixture of Futura and Helvetica combined along with an old-fashioned analogue clock, while on some player name captions, Helvetica was the font of choice.

Other than that, the only additional detail was a simple digital 'R' for action replays that remained static in the top-left corner. It symbolised the clinical, no-nonsense German approach used during the 1974 competition: no effort made to provide anything revolutionary, but at least the captions were clear and simple and displayed on a regular basis.

And that was fine in a way, but this was the World Cup... Surely a bit more technical wizardry could have been applied for this four-yearly event? On that point, the computer age was just around the corner and the next World Cup would start to embrace all it had to offer.

World Cup 1978

Yes, computers - those massive objects that took up an entire air-conditioned room with spinning tape loops and flashing lights in close proximity. It was said you could store the text from an entire book on a mainframe, and that was surely more than enough to improve everyone's Argentina '78 viewing experience.

Well that was the theory. Certainly the computers being used during the competition could bring up all manner of information at the touch of a button... it's just that we didn't see too much of it as we watched the likes of Kempes, Krol and Krankl.

When domestic studio-based presentation switched to the local pictures from South America, you might have first seen a title caption telling you that this really was the World Cup. The fact that BBC2 was showing a documentary on rural farming techniques in Czechoslovakia and football was occupying the other main channel was neither here nor there, but it set the scene in an ancillary way all the same.

Two things would have become apparent at this point: (1) the fixed width yellow font that was standard throughout the 'Copa Mundial', and (2) the use of Spanish as the language on all captions. This latter point might seem a little redundant, but it has to be said that foreign language captions added enormously to the international flavour of a World Cup when you were young and impressionable. Nowadays, computer systems provide on-screen information in any number of languages for a global audience. All very clever, but from a nostalgia point of view it was a backward step in many ways.

As the teams warmed up before kick-off, the two line-ups were detailed in two columns of six allowing for the trainer ('DT') to be included with his eleven-strong legion. Substitutes were shown on a separate page, usually accompanied by an image of the tracksuited players sitting skittishly in their Argentinian dugout.

Next up were the officials, usually referred to by surname alone on the captions, but then again who'd want to know more about a power-mad Norwegian chartered accountant having a day off from his regular job anyway?

Players were treated in similar fashion. When the camera lingered long enough on one of them waiting for something to happen, his shirt number and surname were made known at the bottom of the screen, albeit only for a few fleeting seconds.

Four years on from World Cup '74, TV producers in Argentina opted to show the full word 'Replay' rather than just an 'R' when re-running any goalmouth action, thereby proving that the English version of the word had now been internationally accepted in its original form. Either that or the director was trying to curry favour with a close relative living in London.

Throughout each game, a digital clock would sometimes appear in the top right corner, and for the first time ever in World Cup TV presentation, it actually updated second by second. It wasn't displayed permanently, but knowing it could pop up every once in a while was an exciting and strangely comforting thing back in the day. Remember - this was an era when digital watches and pocket calculators were the must-have items for any self-respecting consumer back in the UK. Digital numbers of any kind were enough to make certain grown men weak at the knees in 1978, let it be said.

The clock was often combined with the scoreline on some captions, especially when play restarted after a goal had gone in. Once again, the Spanish version of the competing country names was shown, leaving your Granddad to wonder who the hell 'Alemania' and 'Suecia' were and whether they were actually on our side during the war or not, amongst other things.

And so as the 1970's crawled slowly to their inevitable conclusion, the humble World Cup caption looked set to thrive during the following decade thanks to the advances being made in computer technology. Yet for all that, it would be many years before the static text of old would be swept away in favour of something more exciting. Who knew what the 1980's would bring?

Coming up in Part 2:
Sliding slabs, fluttering flags and blue bars - it's The World Cup in Captions from 1982 to 1994...


  1. The FIFA World Cup and the European Championships have been subject to parody in my stories. A simple 'Action Replay' caption was used during live transmission of matches played in Fredfurt during COPA Pearamia 1974 with both GDPTV and commercial television offered to do. The football commentator and his summariser sound crystal clear as I hate video phone commentary.

  2. i remember that the 1978 Captions were used in Argentina also through the 1980s by ATC (Argentina TV Color) channel

  3. i also remember that in Mexico 1970, during the anthems the caption showed simply the name of the country in spanish (for example "Checoslovaquia", "Alemania", "Uruguay", etc.) in a Helvetica typeface

    that "REPET" in the replays doesn't stands for "Repeat" but for "Repeticion", which means "Replay" in Spanish.

    1. Thanks for the info, Lucas - very interesting!

    2. I've seen footage of matches from the 1970 World Cup and I can work out that REPET is short for REPETICION which is Spanish for ACTION REPLAY.

  4. Brilliant series, which I just found, 4 years later. Many thanks.