By Paul Gardner
Martin Tyler, the most experienced of ESPN’s Brit announcers, is billed as the "lead play-by-play commentator" for the World Cup. That's sort of OK -- Tyler is the best of the bunch, but it would be nice if he did more of what his title proclaims, i.e. play-by-play.
I take that term literally, that it means a description of the action as it develops on the field. And I take the essence of play-by-play, the basic sine qua non, to be player identification: letting the viewer know, at all times, who has the ball.
When Tyler does that, he does it as well as it can be done, brightly, crisply, with occasional trenchant asides. He doesn’t do it enough, though -- nor do any of the other announcers -- because they seem compelled to just talk -- what I’m calling yakking. Sometimes it’s just them, sometimes it’s the analyst, sometime both of them get involved in what novelist Vladimir Nabokov dubbed “competitive reminiscences.” It gets in the way of any real commentary on the action, and rarely is it anywhere near as interesting as the guys yakking think it is.
When you consider that in the average 90-minute game, the ball is in play for only 60 minutes, that ought to leave plenty of time for yakking -- if we must have yakking. Apparently not. In my 75 hours of ESPN World Cup watching I have noted numerous instances of yakking during game action.
One example, of many: toward the end of the Germany 4, England 1 wipe-out, Bastian Schweinsteiger made an exciting run forward with the ball at his feet, from his own half to the edge of the English penalty area. Not a word was said about it -- because analyst Efan Ekoku was yakking all through it ... about the Ghana under-20 team.
Possibly Ekoku thought he was doing what he’s paid for, being a soccer expert. One would think -- would one not? -- that one of the cardinal requirements of a soccer expert would be that he knows the rules of the game. Yet Ekoku, in the very first game, made a monumental error, showing either that he doesn’t know the offside rule or that he can’t see straight. Or both.
His was not the only ignorance when it came to the rules. Adrian Healey told us that, for a foul to be called, “there has to be intent involved” -- which, apart from a handball offense, is utterly wrong. Ally McCoist -- more than once -- objected to referees calling fouls because there was no intention, or no malice. Wrong, Ally. Quite wrong.
Ekoku approved of a yellow card for a defender who fouled because he was “the last man” -- a phrase that does not appear in the rule book.
Most of this revolves around what constitutes a physical foul. That British commentators would get this wrong will surprise no one -- except the ESPN soccer brains, whoever they may be. The British version of soccer has long been recognized as the most physical around. So, of course the Brits are going to be constantly carping about referees’ foul calls. There were repeated examples of the Brits belittling dangerous play, ridiculing yellow and red card decisions by the referees, or accusing a player of “going down too easily” and “embellishing” his fall.
Sadly, for the Brits, technology intervened here. The close-up replays of fouls were absolutely brilliant, by far the best I’ve ever seen -- and these crystal clear images frequently made a mockery of the Brit opinions. My favorite came at the beginning of the Italy 1, Paraguay 1 game. Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo was the victim of a nasty challenge by Cristian Riveros. Ian Darke and Ekoku initially ignored the foul, then had to come back to it as Montolivo needed treatment. At the exact moment that the replay was showing Riveros’s cleats slamming into Montolivo’s shin and sliding down on to his ankle, Ekoku gave his expert opinion that he “didn’t see too much wrong with that.”
Talking of the British game ... that’s exactly what these guys did, over and over and over again. Why would that be? It was virtually impossible to listen to a game announced by Ian Darke without quickly hearing a reference to The English Premier League, carefully articulated enough to sound like a plug. Couldn’t be, could it? But it kept happening.
In one game, Darke managed to mention the names of twelve English clubs in the first half -- and this was a game between Serbia and Ghana!
No, I haven’t checked every game, but I feel sure that at least one reference to the (carefully articulated) English Premier League occurred in almost all of them. Of course, you are aware that ESPN does broadcast EPL games?
In addition to condoning foul play the Brits inevitably bring what appears to be an innate inability to pronounce foreign names. Something of a problem during the multi-national World Cup. I can speak only of the languages that I know well -- Spanish and Italian -- in which the maulings and manglings were appalling. Heaven only knows what these guys did with Slovenian or Korean or Algerian names.
Things came to a spectacular climax at the end of the Paraguay vs. Spain quarterfinal when Darke, in an inspired burst of ineptitude, mispronounced three names in quick succession, to be immediately followed by a further miscue from John Harkes.
Maybe, just maybe, putting up with all the yakking and the plugging and the mispronouncing was worth it -- because those experts produced wonderful analyses of the game?
I shouldn’t be too down on the Brits here -- most soccer analysis, whoever’s doing it, comes under the “banalysis” heading. It’s just that the Brits have their own special version of soccer banality, and all you need to know are just three words: organized, crosses and width. If a team is well-organized (read boring) the Brits will admire it. If a team isn’t doing well, it needs to play the ball wide and get some crosses into the box. That’s all there is to it, folks.
I’m leaving out the humor. There is a lot of that -- Tyler is good at low-key humor, it is a big part of his attractive TV personality. Of course, when Brits get together they are apt to crack Brit jokes -- we had Darke and McCoist breaking each other up in one game with references to Sam Allardyce. Sam Allardyce? Don’t ask.
Robbie Mustoe has been unknowingly amusing with his amazing over-use of the word “little” -- only little things happen on a soccer field for Mustoe, everything needs to be a little bit more, or a little bit less than what it is. In what I feel was probably his record-setting game, I counted 29 of those “little” touches.
But my favorite comment -- so far -- has been a non-Brit one. Made -- in all seriousness, I do believe -- by John Harkes during the game between New Zealand and Slovakia: “New Zealand are running out of ideas.” A chilling thought for the future of the sport.