By Paul Gardner
It seemed to me likely that ESPN, having taken the decision to slap American soccer in the face by employing a virtually all-Brit army of commentators for its World Cup telecasts, would then soften the blow by having those guys make a concession or two to American sensibilities or American viewpoints, or, at the very least, to the American language.
Wrong again. Having delivered the original insult (quite possibly without even being aware of the faux pas), ESPN proceeded to allow its Brits to give us hour after hour after hour of solidly Brit-oriented broadcasts without the slightest attempt that I could discover, on the part of anyone, to modify matters for an American audience.
Talking of hours and hours: everything that I am going to say in this column is based on my own viewing of these ESPN broadcasts. A total of 48 full games, plus two half-games, which means about 75 hours of listening. This was strictly live commentary - I watched very little of the studio stuff. So, 75 hours with seven Brits - Martin Tyler, Ian Darke, Adrian Healey, Derek Rae, Robbie Mustoe, Ally McCoist, Efran Ekoku and the lone American, John Harkes.
Actually, Harkes makes a good starting point. Because he managed something that none of the Brits could pull off: he uttered the word soccer! This historic moment occurred 11 minutes into the Argentina vs. South Korea game on June 17. A moment to relish, because it didn’t happen again. Apart from that one use, it was football all the way.
Well, now. I live in a country where the sport is controlled by the United States Soccer Federation, where the pro league is named Major League Soccer, where the sport in the high schools and the colleges is, always, called soccer. And so on. But these guys can’t even bring themselves to mention the word. Not quite true -- they managed it when talking of the Australian Socceroos, and of Soccer City in Johannesburg (hey, how come that didn’t get translated into Football City?), and Tyler once mentioned the Premier Soccer League -- but that’s South African, so I guess that’s OK.
But how can this be? It is inconceivable to me that ESPN would have required the announcers to ban the word -- firstly because I cannot imagine that ESPN works that way, and secondly because it doesn’t know enough to even have an opinion on the matter.
Which means that the announcers themselves just plowed on as though they were talking to a Brit audience. Nice, very nice. A snotty “just shut up and listen the masters” approach that certainly put the Americans in their place. You could even think that the Brits had quite forgotten that they weren’t talking to a Brit audience -- yet how could that be when each telecast featured a greeting in British accents to American soldiers and sailors watching on AFN?
At times it was downright insulting. When the South African crowds did the wave, Rae, Darke and Tyler referred to it as “the Mexican Wave.” That is pure Brit usage, based on ignorance -- Brit journalists first saw the wave during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and presumed it to be a Mexican invention.
But wouldn’t you think that someone at ESPN would have told these guys about its American origin?
And what are we to make of phrases like “under the cosh” (did he say “under the coach?” I was asked), “at sixes and sevens,” “break his duck,” “argie-bargie,” “keepy-uppy,” “punter,” “came up trumps” and no doubt others. No explanation was offered for these curiosities, yet occasionally -- very occasionally -- some sort of sensitivity did force it’s way to the surface.
At one point Tyler spoke, with feeling, of his admiration for the American game and all that was being done to promote its growth. A genuine tribute, but one that never featured the word “soccer”!
When Tyler used the word “draw,” he then said to Harkes “or ‘tie,’ as you would say.” Well, there are various other things that “we would say.” Take the word “assist” for instance. This is a familiar word to all American sports fans, and is widely used in soccer, with MLS dishing out assists on virtually every goal scored in the league. It is also a concept that has been adopted by FIFA, which includes assists in its official World Cup statistics.
The Italians and the Spanish use the term, too. But not the Brits. No sir, not them. I have discussed this with a number of Brit journalists over the years and it is quite clear that their objection to the concept and the word is that they are Americanisms. Nothing deeper than that. It’s not even that the Brits have a better word -- they don’t have a word at all.
They have to talk, as Tyler did, of a player “making” a goal for a teammate; Rae preferred “setting up” a goal. Hardly the Queen’s English at its best.
Did any of the ESPN commentators use the word “assist”? I never heard it -- and I was listening for it. The only time I heard it was from Chris Fowler -- an American -- in the studio. To lean over backward to avoid using an American term -- and a useful one, at that -- is surely just about as childish as you can get.
Worse, because it caused confusion, was the Brits’ insistence on using, without any explanation that I heard, the array of Brit terms used to denote time: thus we got injury time and stoppage time and normal time and added time and extra time. What we did not get was the American terms regulation time and overtime.
What I have detailed above is clear evidence that ESPN either doesn’t care about the American soccer audience, or is convinced that there is no such audience. Enter the Brits as the experts to teach us what’s what in soccer, though we’ll have to use the word football from now on, I guess.
That last sentence raises the question: just how expert were these experts? I’ll take a look into that next time.