My World Cup: The Failings of ESPN's Brit Experts

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.

35 comments about "My World Cup: The Failings of ESPN's Brit Experts ".
  1. Christopher Holden, July 8, 2010 at 2:13 a.m.

    That is why there is a mute button on your TV remote. I agree with you 100%. You'd think ESPN would do better than that.

  2. Stacy Richardson, July 8, 2010 at 3:48 a.m.

    (1) Regarding the mispronunciations of non-English-language names: the Brits are renowned for this form of abuse, and it goes with the territory. Those woeful mispronunciations are not unique to British soccer commentators, as anyone can attest who has heard a BBC announcer slaughter the word "Nicaragua."

    (2) Although it's a shame that the announcers or commentators didn't get back to the game on one or two occasions when the penalty area was threatened, I greatly, greatly prefer their practice of discussing non-play-by-play issues when the ball is in midfield. I don't think it's necessary or desirable for the announcers to describe midfield passing or mention every ball that goes into touch. American soccer announcers drive me crazy when they mention the obvious. I find the British don't do this, and it's greatness on their part.

    American announcers are wasting time and insulting our intelligence by mentioning that "the ball goes over the line for a goal kick" when it's obvious what happened. British announcers will mention when a corner is given, but will mention goal kicks and possession on throw-ins if-and-only-if controversy exists over which team touched the ball last.

    Therefore, I think the idea that announcers should mention each and every thing that happens to be utterly ridiculous.

  3. Shawn Wash, July 8, 2010 at 4:08 a.m.

    Didn't Paul rant about this same topic the other day? Lets talk about something important like bringing technology into the game

  4. Paul Sheirich, July 8, 2010 at 4:15 a.m.

    To Stacy - Amen. I get Paul's point about the British pronunciation, but then, they do speak differently. Lord knows in our great USA we mash names like crazy. But I'm thinking Paul has a bone to pick - way too much detail on just the British. I know he attacks the loose foul calls in the Prem, and I have to agree there. But I'll take their announcers - the worst of them - any day over Harkes, and I can't think of an American I'd like to hear as often during the World Cup. Maybe in 4 years we'll have a couple of good teams in the booth?

  5. Fernando Paz, July 8, 2010 at 7:32 a.m.

    The announcers really don't bug me very much yea they talk alot about nothing during the games. The thing that irks me the most is ESPN's pop ups of soccer facts on the upper right hand side of the screen. Its like I am watching VH1 pop up videos that is what bugs me the most not so much the british commentators.

  6. Mark Edge, July 8, 2010 at 8:44 a.m.

    Paul Gardner's World Cup seems to have nothing to do with the entertainment on the field, more of an opportunity to rant about his own jingoistic attitude towards all things from the U.K.
    He can't stand the commntators, the coaches, the league, the players, the managers, the fact that the coaches find employment in the U.S.He is very much in the minority with the commentators. They are the voice of soccer, much as Al Michaels and John Madden were the voice of Football.
    I suggest he calls Andy Rooney so thay can get together for a 5pm early bird special dinner and ramble on at each other about how things were so much better in the good old days.

  7. Marc Satterly, July 8, 2010 at 8:55 a.m.

    It is times like these that I am glad I learned Spanish. Pablo Ramirez and Jesus Bracamontes are a great team. They keep you informed and on the edge of your seat. Unfortunately, they have Jose Luis Chilavert working with them now. He is apparently blind and like most former players, knows nothing about the laws of the game. And like most goalkeepers, has a limited knowledge of the game. Oh, and everyone is racist against Paraguayans. But I find that the dancing Senadoras before and after the matches more than make up for these shortfalls.

  8. David Underwood, July 8, 2010 at 9:20 a.m.

    Seriously, Paul. Move on. We know you don't like the British announcers. I for one have enjoyed their commentary and don't mind at all the British slang and terminology (reference Paul's previous article)and I don't need my commentating dumbed down for me. I know enough of the ENGLISH language that even if a phrase is a bit different, I can figure it out. Why wouldn't the Brits make mention of the EPL with such regularity? It's the most popular league on the planet with the greatest world-wide following. I am thankful that ESPN has had awesome coverage of the World Cup...and even the EPL. US soccer fans have been complaining for years that we want more soccer coverage...well we finally have it and Paul is complaining about the British announcers who are helping us enjoy it. Go figure.

  9. Tim Mccoy, July 8, 2010 at 9:28 a.m.

    Two days in a row! We get Paul's Brit-broadcaster bashing for two days in a row! Me thinks if you could Mr. Gardner, you'd sell your mother to be Hispanic.

    Play-by-play man used to mean, describe the play and get out of the way...for the color man. However, 1) soccer (like baseball) does not require a constant diatribe of description (especially on TV) and 2) the play-by-play man has evolved into your "guide" through the match...a little describing the play, serve as straight man or set up man to the analyst (who is now an analyst instead of color man), pitch the network's other properties, and weave in the occasional relevant tale during the slow parts. Ultimately, the pair should be telling a story of the game (both within the context of the specific contest and on the larger scale).

    The Brits who were chosen are better prepared to tell the tale of a game and the game, whether they call it soccer or football; most American announcers are used to calling football, basketball, and/or hockey, even the guys working MLS games. All fast-paced games with need for constant description. The better suited baseball announcers are busy right now; plus, they're a pretty specialized bunch with not much involvement in other sports due to the length of their season.

    With as many broadcast hours as the WC provides there are going to be mistakes. The key according to a mentor of mine is avoiding the big cursing on the air or insulting someone's nationality (Jack Buck's comment during a national baseball broadcast about Bobby Vinton singing the National Anthem prior to a playoff game in Pgh. anyone?).

    The Brits play-by-play guys haven't been bad. The analysts...there's plenty to complain about with them and it has nothing to do with nationality.

    Cordial whistles!

  10. Brian Watts, July 8, 2010 at 9:47 a.m.

    Why is Paul still watching the WC? I haven't heard a positive comment in the last month....

  11. beautiful game, July 8, 2010 at 10:05 a.m.

    I'll take the Brits anyday over John Harkes et al...Harkes is a third rate commentator who can't find the right words in a laconic phrase in order to give a quick on the spot comment...he's terrific when he goes into the yada-yada routine of saying a lot and meaning less.

  12. Brian Something, July 8, 2010 at 10:27 a.m.

    This is the basically the same column he wrote a few days ago. Ally McCoist, being a Brit and thus smarter than us, gave us gems like, "The next goal will be really important"... said in the 80th minute of a 0-0 game. There's only one problem: American announcers are just as bad, if not worse, at the "banalysis" than the Brits. Did I really need to hear Harkes saying, "You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to, let's call the whole thing off!"?

    For years, I refused to watch an LA Galaxy game without muting it. The announcers would yammer on and on about a certain #23... even when he wasn't playing! Typically stuff like, "Blah blah blah... oh by the way, someone for one of the teams scored a goal. Not sure who. Now, that we've concluded our discussion of David Beckham's favorite brand of Kleenex, let's move on to his appearance at the grand opening of the new Gap for Tweens in Milan." At least Ghana's U20 team is related to the sport of soccer.

  13. Carl Walther, July 8, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    Ekoku is absolutely the worst announcer/commentator I've ever been subjected to. During the Germany-Spain game, I'm not ever sure he was away that there was a game doing on. He talked about every else. Also, I've never heard a person say such dumb, dumb things about soccer.

  14. Mike Gaire, July 8, 2010 at 11:03 a.m.

    Yet another carping moaning piece of anti British rhetoric! I am beginning to think that the only reason Gardener is in America is because he was thrown out of Britain and he is trying to get some sort of pathetic revenge! At least when Craig Ferguson has a go at the Brits he does it totally tongue in cheek!! Haven't you been here long enough yet to know that the Yanks love the Brits and you continually slamming them is just a waste of your time and your reader's time?

  15. chris leonard, July 8, 2010 at 11:55 a.m.


    I agree please let the viewer know, at all times, who has the ball! The stories, anecdotes and missed analysis can be saved and given later as podcasts for those who cannot get enoigh! = me!

    By contrast, I have REALLY enjoyed the analysis from Roberto Martinez, Jurgen Klinsmann and Ruud Gullit. Lalas and McManaman have been passionate and fun to hear from, too.

  16. Caroline Lambert, July 8, 2010 at 12:01 p.m.

    I just wish Paul's diatribe was insightful as the comments his readers make! The pressure of writing a certain number of words every day is getting to him. He'd be better off if he wrote articles, say, twice a week rather than every day.

  17. Austin Gomez, July 8, 2010 at 12:12 p.m.

    Paul G. does bring up ONE EXCELLENT IDEA via 'osmosis' in his climatic column. And that is: all WC Announcers (including all others who make a living from this occupation, at whatever level-of-play) should take & pass with high- accuracy a Basic (and in some cases an Advanced Exam, especially if the Announcer commentates in the professional soccer league) REFEREE Exam! And then carry/possess this Law Book whenever/wherever they will be commentating! I never mind hearing proper CRITICISM, (be it from the Spectators that abound the Field-of-Play to the T.V. Commentators that invade each Household from their Crystal Palace: the TV Booth) if --- whatever they state --- is CORRECT, according to the "Laws of the Game."

    If it is not according to the 17 Laws of the Game (with its inherent "feel"/"spirit" of the Game also included),
    then they should NOT comment upon its correctness nor incorrectness, regarding Fouls/Misconduct/Punishment!
    etcetera - etctera - etcetera -

    End of Discusssion!

    When commenting on "REFEREE judgmental decisions" that occur most frequently during a 90+ contest, (via the discretionary powers of the Referee), Commentators should NOT speak incorrectly (about Referees' decisions) with their misunderstanding of the Laws of the Game! Most UNPROFESSIONAL and UNETHICAL!

    No reason for this to ever occur with these so-called "professionals" in the Announcrs' booth, with whom the average non-educated audience (with regard to the 17 Laws of the Game) do fully LISTEN to and fully BELIEVE IN!


  18. derek winfield, July 8, 2010 at 12:58 p.m.

    ESPN is getting nothing but thanks from me. They are devoting a huge amount of air time to this world cup. They are also making changes based on viewer feedback with regards to the announcers. Four years ago everyone complained that Dave O'Brien wasn't a "soccer guy" and that the broadcasts were dumbed down for the mainstream sports viewer. This time, they brought in a very experienced crew. So what if they all have British accents and they babble sometimes. ESPN is making a huge effort to make soccer fans happy.

    However, I do remember that Andres Cantor did English language broadcasts of the Olympic soccer games a number of years ago and he was a fantastic play-by-play man. He would describe exactly what was happening on the field. It would have worked well on the radio. Unfortunately, I doubt ESPN could ever get him for the world cup - at least not for English broadcasts.

  19. Michael Knutson, July 8, 2010 at 1:15 p.m.

    I agree 100% with the comments praising ESPN's decision to use PROFESSIONAL announcers in South Africa. I am enjoying the commentators, even John Harkes. After experiencing "native" commentators in cups past, I'll stick with the Brits, PLEASE! Nothing that I hate more than the announcers missing a great sequence while talking about total fluff ... or the cameras missing something while focusing off the field ... Paul G is entitled to his opinions of course, but, please ESPN, stay with this direction in announcing!

  20. Lee Walker, July 8, 2010 at 1:39 p.m.

    Wow, Paul...grumpy much? Your commentary on ESPN's selection of on-air talent comes off as ethnocentric and insecure. You seem to have prejudices that really should be addressed in a less public forum and ultimately you don't offer any better solutions so the rant is of little value. I thought the production value of this WC was by far the best yet. It's the World Cup, it only comes around every 4 years...try to enjoy life more.

  21. Joe McMenamin, July 8, 2010 at 2:02 p.m.

    Glad to see you point out the "crystal clear images". The best team at this World Cup are the people behind the cameras. The images are extraordinary.
    We can only wish that the players, coaches and officials were this good.

    Joe McMenamin

  22. Helmut Floesser, July 8, 2010 at 2:28 p.m.

    My favorite was actually an analysis by our own expert, Mr. Alexi Lalas, commenting on the “penalty or no penalty ” on the Oezil fall/trip in the Germany- Spain match.
    His observation : “In the context of Spain’s domination of the game it should not be called”.
    Wonder which rule book he consulted to come up with this criterion. He even repeated it after he had time to think about it.
    But then again, wasn’t he always style over substance.

  23. Jim Dickinson, July 8, 2010 at 2:39 p.m.

    Put down the pen and go outdoors... You're coming across as the grumpiest man in America. Okay, we will give you the GMA for this World Cup... You win!
    Now stop.

  24. Mark Edge, July 8, 2010 at 4:10 p.m.

    Can't wait to hear his opinion on Howard Webb getting the final. He must be apoplectic with horror!

  25. Derek Dunmire, July 8, 2010 at 5:06 p.m.


    I cannot remember for the life of me when you last posted a POSITIVE opinion on anything related to soccer. Its unfortunate when the game is growing at such a great pace that you do not realize the importance of presenting more positive postings. Granted, there is always a need for constructive criticism and disagreement for a "debate" to occur, but constant negativity about everything related to the game is just annoying. Find something that you enjoy about the game, even if it is only ONE thing, and write about that for once!!!

  26. Joe d. Shaw, July 8, 2010 at 6:33 p.m.

    Whoa,that's funny. Harkesie did frequently provide comic relief. But I recall a certain Mr. Gardner on network TV back in '78, doing an NASL game of the week, and coming off rather snide/abrasive. We've come a long way since then have we not, Paulie?

  27. John h Borja, July 8, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.

    On the whole, the various commentators on ESPN, ABC, FSC, and others have been, as the Brits may say, spot on. Most, if not all, have been players on the international stage and retain what made them competitive. Their enthusiasm for their former clubs, etc. is only natural. It is obvious that this aspect of their commentary is relatively subdued either from their contractual agreements with the networks or to demonstrate their brand of professionalism. Thank god we don't have Johnny Bench doing the color or the play by play of the World Cup. Johnny has his place. I believe the audience is sufficiently pleased with the extensive historical data and personal anecdotes that are heard on the broadcasts. The networks have done a great job in achieving a balance of perspective from the various commentators. By the way, worldwide, the refs are the enemy. That is how they are considered. Have you seen an Argentine match lately? The refs hardly call anything, because if they do they'll get tarred and feathered by the fans in the stands. The Brits don't hold a candle to those ruffians.

  28. Douglas Colson, July 8, 2010 at 8:51 p.m.

    I agree with PG's critique of much of the analyst comments...but I must say the ESPN radio coverage was sooo much worse. Some of the play by play was 'unlistenable' it was so undescriptive and frustrating.

  29. Edward Ralston, July 8, 2010 at 9:43 p.m.

    I say that I am just mighty thankful that, for the first time ever in my area, I am able to view a magnificent HD broadcast of soccer on my new-fangled big screen TV. Looking foreward to the day when FSC is able to deliver such a quality broadcast to our area as well. As for Martin, I really like him during EPL broadcasts in the winter time, and I really liked his work in this world cup as well. Thanks Martin! And Thanks ESPN for great work!

  30. Robert Kiernan, July 9, 2010 at 1:34 a.m.

    OK, I tend to agree that most English language broadcasts over the years have been less than well done... but even though the Brits may have a somewhat myopic view of the sport, they DO HAVE A VIEW... but if the only alternative is to have J.P.Dellacamera prattle on and IGNORE the better part of the game going on in front of him, or worse still have a BASEBALL type announcer like O'Brien brought in who has a list to read from...and once he's read it can count on hearing it again and again... the best real Play by Play guy I've heard on ESPN is Glenn Davis because while he will prattle on a bit with his Color Guy, if SOMETHING ON THE FIELD is happening, he will interrupt and go back into play by play mode... that is RARE, every time I think of four years ago when the US was down a goal and the ball was being crossed over to the edge of the box for the 6' 8" Czech Striker, Jan Koller...who already had scored, and there was the sight of Kasey Keller moving off his line coming out to intercept this ball...and the studio broadcasting crew...TOTALLY WRAPPED UP IN SOME ARCANE POINT...TOTALLY IGNORING THIS ACTION!!! ...this is the sort of thing that will drive a true soccer fan to distraction or maybe going postal if they are near enough to the broadcast center.
    By and large this has been BETTER than four years ago... not perfect by any means, but better. And I DO REMEMBER a decade back when Andres Cantor did play by play in English...and did a MUCH better job of it than anyone else had...but he works for Telemundo, which is an NBC network, and ESPN is run by he would NEVER be doing these matches, well qualified or not... but a return to J.P. Dellacamera is NOT the answer and I am very glad not to have him or worse still that BASEBALL MORON O'BRIEN doing these matches... hey, I grew up listening to Tony Tirado lie about the size of the crowds at matches in Spanish...but at least there was PASSION there... and all those Soccer Made in GERMANY matches back in the 70's called by Toby Charles...a WELSH SOCCER ANNOUNCER working in GERMANY!???
    Hey you take what you can get, eh?

  31. Joe Thompson, July 9, 2010 at 11:23 a.m.

    Martin Tyler did just fine and the pictures from this World Cup have been incrdible. Congrats ESPN and FIFA.

  32. Bertrand Hamilton, July 9, 2010 at 3:53 p.m.

    Paul, this rant is just wishful thinking, there simply is not a Derek Rae, or Martin Tyler caliber play by play guy out there. If you know any one tell us, may be we can get behind them. I agree with one aspect of your article: less yakking more i.d. of players on the ball.

  33. Bill Sweeney, July 9, 2010 at 3:53 p.m.

    Paul -- next time you get a haircut ask the barber to pay particular attention the wild one up your a**. You may not like the British announcers, but they are still head and shoulders above what we have available in the US as soccer commentators and play by play announcers.

  34. Emmanuel Vella, July 9, 2010 at 5:24 p.m.

    Perhaps they need to do the announcing in the "American Language." Would that make you happy? Should we refer as the language spoken in Honduras as Honduran? Or the language spoken in New Zealand as New Zealandish? Is Mexican a Language? How about giving some deference to the nation that created Association Football (soccer)? No, you won't do that because deference requires humility and respect, qualities you don't possess. The simple fact of the matter is that any of the aforementioned announcers possess a greater knowledge of the game than you do. Moreover, you insult the intelligence of the American Soccer watching public with regard to British expressions and common parlance. They appear far more well informed than you do.

  35. Bill Koeppen, July 10, 2010 at 7:46 p.m.

    The British announcers are fine until they begin unwittingly or wittingly classifying the EPL and English soccer as the holiest and best of the world's game. Clearly it is not. British announcers are kind of like their players and team...we like them because they have an accent...which unfortunately gives them more credibility. Which speaks to a bigger problem...we have too many so called experts laying seige to American soccer intellect because they possess an accent. Think for yourselves people!! We've all been conditioned to believe they are more knowledgeable and have the right to claim as much. As far as English soccer is concerned, the influence it has over American soccer should end in the broadcast booth...the days when the British were world leaders in soccer are over...due to a lack of insight into the game which is really what Paul Gardener is saying!

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications