BY JIM WEEKS
There is now so much football available to watch that, were someone so inclined, they could enjoy the beautiful game for every waking moment of their entirely pointless day. Fancy seeing Zob Ahan play Al-Nassr in the Asian Champions League group stage? You may have your wish. Want to indulge in a little Belgian First Division B action? Go on then, son. Consumed by a burning desire to watch Coventry City? Hey, whatever floats your boat.
As well as the more niche football fancies, we have easy access to the obvious stuff: wall-to-wall Champions League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A – the lot.
Access to this much football coverage is a very recent phenomenon, one that was unthinkable even at the turn of the millennium. While there was Premier League coverage on Sky Sports and a smattering of overseas action to be found elsewhere, it was hardly common in the time (the mid nineties) and place (south-west Wales) to which we are now headed. These were the days of terrestrial television, 12-inch Sanyo screens, and the strange allure of the vertical hold button. Unless you were so ludicrously minted as to have cable or satellite, you were limited to a meagre four channels: BBC1, BBC2, ITV, and Channel 4.
But not if you lived in Wales. We had the first three, but in the place of Channel 4 was the Welsh-language offering S4C – that’s Sianel Pedwar Cymru, or Channel 4 Wales.
Though similar to Channel 4 in some ways, it also featured significant alterations to the schedule. Shows like Frasier would be moved from their 10pm Channel 4 slot to quarter to midnight, so that Welsh viewers could enjoy Welsh programmes for Welsh people – programmes like Ffermio. Ffermio literally means farming; the show deals with industry issues and updated viewers on livestock prices across Wales. In 1997. Honestly, I don’t think I was their target audience.
While as an adult I can respect the existence of niche viewing for farmers, back then I was less tolerant. The anger would rise as I cast an eye over the TV guide in the paper – we had paper back then, too – and gazed jealously upon the Channel 4 schedule. Then I’d move to the bottom of the column, where it read: ‘S4C – the same, except for…’ This is where you’d find the alterations: Frasier at midnight, Brass Eye two weeks on Wednesday, the movie gone altogether. I harboured great jealously for the unblemished running order they enjoyed over the border.
But, despite a few downsides, we did get one over on the English in another respect: we had Sgorio. Wonderful, life affirming Sgorio.
Let me first enlighten you with the vital information that “sgorio” means “score” in Welsh, as in Gareth Bale yw’r Cymro cyntaf i sgorio yn rownd derfynnol Cynghrair y Pencampwyr (translation: Gareth Bale is the first Welshman to score in the final of the Champions League). Aired at 10pm on Mondays, Sgorio was a football highlights show exclusively broadcast in Wales, though a few extremely fortunate English regions could pick up the signal as well.
Being broadcast on a channel dedicated to all matters Welsh, you would be sensible to assume that Sgorio showcased the domestic game and the travails of the national team – sensible, but wrong.
It began life in 1988, when a variety of sports were featured, but by the early nineties Sgorio was exclusively broadcasting top-level European football. My memory of it begins around the middle of the decade, when Serie A was the league to watch: Del Piero and Zidane at Juve, Maldini and Weah at AC Milan, Djorkaef at Inter, Totti at Roma.
In this respect Sgorio shared similarities with Channel 4’s seminal Football Italia, and nostalgia for the two is easily conflated. But what it lacked in an urbane James Richardson sipping an espresso outside a cafe, Sgorio made up for in footballing diversity. As well as Serie A highlights, there was action from La Liga. In the mid nineties that meant a Real Madrid side featuring the likes of Raul and Roberto Carlos, and a Barcelona team that included Rivaldo and Guardiola. And it wasn’t just highlights: in 1997 Sgorio showed El Clasico live on terrestrial TV. That doesn’t even happen now, in our age of televised excess. Later, they added the Bundesliga to complete the holy trinity of European football.
It bears repeating just how incredible all of this felt in 1997. If you didn’t have satellite TV, your chance to see the best players on the planet came every two or four years at the World Cup or Euros. I had watched a handful of the Italians and Spanish players at Euro ’96, but guys like Ronaldo, Batistuta and Rivaldo were basically an unknown quantity save for the odd live Champions League match.
Suffice to say, the contrast between this and my season ticket at League of Wales stalwarts Carmarthen Town was stark. Looking back, even the comparison to the Premier League felt fairly dramatic. England’s top flight had not yet established itself as a destination for the world’s best players, and while there was plenty of talent to be seen on Match of the Day it didn’t stack up to Serie A or La Liga. Sgorio brought Kappa kits, flowing Mediterranean locks and another world of stadium architecture into Welsh living rooms. Remember, this was a time when Steve Claridge was banging in Premier League goals – he was reliable, but hardly Batigol.
The only catch was that Sgorio was broadcast entirely in Welsh. The 2011 census suggested that only around 20 per cent of the population speak the language, which is presumably why former Plaid Cymru MP Gwynfor Evans threatened to fast to death if a Welsh channel was not established. I would presumably be a disappointment to the late Mr Evans, the MP for my hometown during the seventies, in that I attended mixed-language schools and only speak basic Welsh. As such, Sgorio’s commentary was largely lost on me.
But, in a way this added to the appeal. Sgorio broadcast football from overseas, so it didn’t seem wholly inappropriate that it was in a language I did not speak (albeit one I am ashamed at my poor grasp of). Ultimately, Oliver Kahn stood between the sticks for Bayern whether you called him the gôl-geidwad or the porter.
In fact, Sgorio did more than some of my teachers to add a few extra words to my Welsh vocabulary. I will forever know the Welsh phrase for penalty (cic o’r smotyn) because the commentators shouted it excitedly when a butter-wouldn’t-melt Italian striker tumbled to the turf under an innocent looking challenge. It’s probably the only reason I know the phrase hanner amser (half time) and I’d guess a few English viewers can still count to five in Welsh having heard innumerable results read out on Sgorio.
Alas, the show has changed considerably since I was watching, with highlights from the Welsh Premier now its main focus. This makes sense: a Welsh language channel should broadcast the domestic league. Sgorio still shows La Liga highlights – understandable given the presence of Bale in the Real Madrid squad – but there’s not the same need for it now that there was in 1997. La Liga is shown on Sky Sports and the 10-year-olds of 2017 are savvy enough to find El Clasico online if they so wish. No one is adjusting the portable TV aerial to tune into a slightly fuzzy game broadcast in the medium of Welsh.
There is, of course, considerable nostalgia seeping into all of this, but it was something special to catch what little glimpses of overseas football we could back then. It felt almost exotic, a feeling you rarely experienced in nineties Wales. Certainly the paucity of coverage lent what we did get to see a greater meaning. El Clasico live in 1997 was a big deal, whereas now it’s more common than many domestic ties. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Back then, the choice of televised football we enjoy today seemed like an unattainable paradise. As it turns out, too much of a good thing can become pretty flavourless. The brief taste of Serie A and La Liga that Sgorio provided was just enough to whet the appetite without dulling the taste buds.