It is fashionable to take potshots at ESPN – - the self-proclaimed “World Wide Leader in Sports” – - when they do excessive self-promotion or when their on air personalities take things over the top. When ESPN “gets one right”, they usually do not get kudos. Allow me to offer kudos to whomever at ESPN that decided to get British commentators for the World Cup matches.
These announcers did not chatter and talk over the game; they did not talk down to their audience when they explained a rule or why a player tried to do what he tried to do; they did not “dumb it down”. All these folks did was to provide entertaining commentary around their explanation of the action within the game. Would that we could infuse all of those stylistic traits into certain US sportscasters…
Three of the commentators that I particularly enjoyed were:
My favorite of all the commentators was:
I enjoy listening to and reading the words of people who can use language to create a picture in my mind. I also appreciate the ability of commentators on sporting events to find new and different ways to create those pictures. John Madden has his place with his exclamations of “Boom!” and the like; I assert there is another school of sports commentary out there that is equally if not more enjoyable. I think the four gentlemen named above demonstrated that such a school of broadcast journalism is alive and well in the United Kingdom.
I first realized that these guys were “different” when the camera focused on the Spanish coach, Vincente del Bosque, sitting passively on his bench looking at the action in front of him. The commentator described del Bosque as “lugubrious”. I promise you that you will not hear that word on SportsCenter twice in a decade. But Google yourself an image of del Bosque and look at it and ask yourself if “lugubrious” is not an excellent adjective here.
So, I started listening for interesting and different turns of phrase and started keeping a list…
About 40 minutes into one of Spain’s early games, the announcer said:
“Spain, so far, is strangely subdued.”
Forget the alliterative value here. In the US, we would probably have been treated to some nonsensical comment that required mind-reading skills on the part of the commentator to the effect that “Spain was content to play within themselves…” Feh!
These British commentators pulled no punches with many of their comments. Regarding a foul by the Ghanaian team, they said:
“No need for that. Very ridiculous.”
After the goalkeeper for Argentina had a ball hit the post and bounce out, they said matter-of-factly:
He is “the luckiest goalkeeper on Earth.”
[Do not hold your breath waiting until the next time you hear anything like that on the telecast of an ESPN football or basketball game…]
When the Mexican team was hosed by the referee missing an offside call by about 6 feet leading to a goal against the Mexican team, the call was direct and pointed:
“Mexico is right to be indignant. A huge injustice…”
Describing Diego Maradona and his behavior on the sidelines – - as opposed to those of Spain’s Vincente del Bosque – - one of the commentators noted that Maradona
“…is not one of the great shy introverts of football.”
When the camera lingered on a team’s substitute players watching the action from the bench, we heard:
“They also serve who only sit and watch.”
When a player made a nice pass to a teammate who had open field to run in, the description was not over the top. They merely said – with a hint of excitement in the voice:
“That was a very tidy ball…”
When players’ attempts at a score were way off target or trivially stopped by the goalkeeper, here were some of the descriptive phrases:
“That was a crazily optimistic try…”
“Frankly, a defender’s attempt [to score]…
When a recognized player had not done much in a particular game, they simply acknowledged that fact without trying to go all Sigmund Freud on the audience:
[He] “has not fully expressed himself in this match.”
A team down by a goal with ten minutes to play was
“… forced into urgent action.”
When a team was down two goals with about ten minutes left to play, the description was:
“The nails are in the coffin.”
As time was running out on Slovakia’s last game in the tournament, the commentary was direct and expressive:
“The last flickering flame of Slovak ambition has been extinguished.”
Paraguay advanced to the quarterfinals having scored only three goals in the tournament. Instead of saying that they “rode their defense” to that status or something like that, the description of the Paraguayan defense was:
“…a miserly, obdurate defense.”
When teams continued to try the same kind of offensive attack that had produced nothing for the entire game, these announcers told us that
“They just keep running down a cul-de-sac…”
Moreover, when a game was tied with only a few minutes left to play and both teams were looking to get one more good scoring chance, the description was:
“And this one [the game] is on the knife’s edge now…”
I do not mean to pick on John Harkes as the US person involved in these ESPN commentaries, but let me use one of his contributions as a contrast here. When the US played Ghana in the elimination round, Harkes said of Clint Dempsey:
“He knows what it feels like to score against this team.”
The reference here is to Dempsey’s goal against the Ghanaian team in the 2006 World Cup game between the US and Ghana. The irrelevance of that fact to the game between those National Teams in the 2010 World Cup tournament is stark. Please note that Harkes did not offer this analytical gem after Ghana beat the US in 2010 as it did in 2006:
“Many of the US players knew coming in what it felt like to lose to the Ghanaian team.”
If you know what it feels like to score against a team you last played 4 years ago, why would one not know what it feels like to lose to that same team? The British play-by-play guy working with Harkes on that day had the grace not to point out the silliness of that kind of commentary.
Over and above all of these entertaining turns of phrases, the British announcers contributed to my enjoyment of the matches with what they did not do. They did not go into long stories about the hardships that players and their families had to overcome in order for the players to make their National Teams and for those National Teams to make it to the World Cup tournament. The only “up close and personal” feelgood moment I can recall came with a single mention of Uruguay’s Diego Forlan committing himself to soccer with the objective of earning enough money playing the game to pay for all of his sister’s medical bills after she was paralyzed in a car accident when he was 12 years old. That mention lasted no more than 20 seconds – - probably no more than 10 seconds but I am leaving myself some wiggle room here lest someone take the time to find that moment on YouTube and time it out at 12 seconds.
Imagine if an American announcing crew had several days to prepare for that tidbit. Instead of a single 20-second mention, there would have been multiple references to this fact tied to every time Forlan had a chance to score. Surely, at halftime, there would have been a 3 to 5 minute feature on Forlan’s sister and the hardships of her life and those molded the character of the young Diego. It would have been a lengthy interruption of the game to tell a story that was summed up succinctly and completely by our British announcers.
Good show, gentlemen. Thank you for good works.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…