By Paul Gardner
Message from ESPN: Americans still don't know anything about soccer, so they'll have to be taken by the hand and have it explained to them ... by, who else, the Brits.
There is no other way to read the utterly insensitive announcement from ESPN that the four main play-by-play announcers for its World Cup coverage will all be Brits.
Despite 12 years of MLS telecasts, both national and local, ESPN cannot find even one American whom they consider good enough. An obvious answer to that blindness is JP Dellacamera, who has been astonishingly ignored. A huge slap in the face for American talent. A tremendous blunder.
No one, certainly not I, will argue with the appointment of Martin Tyler. He may well be the most experienced and most well-known -- possibly the best -- soccer broadcaster in the English language. The other three -- Ian Darke, Derek Rae and Adrian Healey -- have no such distinction to offer. Nor is it that any of them is bad -- they are all in the good to excellent bracket.
The problem is simply that they are all Brits. And for the USA, which has been forging ahead by leaps and bounds over the past decade in its soccer knowledge and its soccer sophistication, that is not good enough. Worse, it is insulting.
It seems quite likely that consideration never occurred to the ESPN soccer brains, whoever they may be. One of them, I guess, must be Jed Drake, the executive producer for ESPN’s 2010 FIFA World Cup coverage, who tells us: “The group of commentators we have assembled represents some of the finest English-language voices for televised soccer anywhere in the world.”
If I take his statement literally, it appears that “voices” is the key word. Agreed -- the voices are good. So is Drake enthralled by the British accents? Should that be the main criterion? I wouldn’t have thought so.
I suppose Drake will tell us he means “voice” in a wider sense, that of a source of information. Only later does he mention soccer knowledge: “ ... their first-hand knowledge of the players who will compete in the FIFA World Cup will greatly inform fans and enhance how we present this global event in the United States.”
But that aspect of soccer -- the global aspect -- is obviously a mystery to the higher ESPN soccer regions. As a global sport, soccer is played with a large number of local variations in style and sensibilities. British commentators will, one hopes, be knowledgeable about British soccer. They will certainly, consciously or unconsciously, reflect British attitudes and prejudices. And of all the soccer parochialisms, the British is by far the most insular, almost impervious to outside influence.
Six years ago, Euro 2004 was offered in the USA on PPV, with all-Brit commentators who managed, at one point, to make a game between Latvia and the Czech Republic sound like an English Premier League Telecast by talking constantly about the small group of players on the field who played for clubs in the EPL.
Which is fine for a British audience. For a multinational and multilingual audience such as the USA presents, it is not fine. If there has to be one controlling soccer mindset for the World Cup telecasts, that mindset should be American. That is unlikely to come from the Brits, because these opinion-patterns are pretty deeply embedded.
But the Brits will be covering the USA. How will they approach that? The home team, so to speak, but not their home team. The obvious way for them to avoid the stigma of not being American, will be to go light on the Americans. Conversely, how will they handle England’s games? Probably by being too critical, in an attempt to prove their objectivity. That will not make for a balanced, intelligent approach.
Talking of which, why on earth would ESPN think it important - in the interests of either balance or intelligence -- to tell us that they have a “dedicated” reporter covering Australia? Let me check ... yes, Australia. Not Brazil, or Spain or Argentina? Not yet anyway, later for them, maybe.
Returning to the field -- or the “pitch” as the Brits will no doubt call it -- there is usually more than one way of interpreting soccer action. This is not a question of being right or wrong, more a matter of one’s soccer background. There is, for a start, the traditional divide between the Latin “skill-based” game, and the European “physical” approach. Never mind, for the moment, the simplification. There are important differences and subtleties. Will we get them from four Brits?
Even within Europe, there are differences. British referees are known to have a permissive approach to rough play. I recently listened to Ian Darke on an English Premier League game that featured some almost criminally pathetic refereeing -- yet Darke, habituated to the leniency of British refs, could not bring himself to utter an outright condemnation of either the violent play or the feeble officiating.
When all is said and done, the biggest objection to ESPN’s announcers is not so much that they are Brits, but that they are all Brits. There is just no variation there. The variety within the game will not be represented. American viewers, themselves a pretty diverse group, deserve better.