By Paul Gardner
Saints, said George Orwell, should always be judged guilty until they can prove their innocence. He got that exactly right. Perfection, you may have noticed -- whatever people may say about it -- is rarely admired. "No one can be that good," is the usual response, one tinged with suspicion and jealousy for sure, but also a healthy response because we know that there is something not natural, not human in perfection.
Perfection belongs to another world, beyond the reach of most of us ... and that world is, maybe subconsciously, viewed as sterile, lacking the spice, the excitements, the mischief, the threats, and the dangers of everyday life.
It would be surprising if soccer, which has assumed the role of a secular religion throughout the world, were free of saints. Most of them, in accordance with tradition, are dead. But we have some living examples -- two of them right here in the USA. Saint David Beckham and Saint Timothy Howard. Two players who are treated as perfection by the saint-makers of this day and age, the television commentators.
When was the last time you heard either player actually criticized on TV for doing something wrong? A poor pass? A muffed save? Stupid behavior? Never. Doesn’t happen. Can’t happen. Saints don’t err. Mindless adulation is the rule here.
Welcome to the perfect (TV) world of St. David and St. Tim. I have duly canonized both of them, as TV seems unwilling to give out the honors that its amazing sycophancy to both players surely demands.
Over the past week, the two Saints have been duly swamped with praise, with never a bad word leveled at them. We can start with Ian Darke, the Brit who lives in Brit-land, but who is now ESPN’s instant expert on American soccer. Darke was at work during Tuesday’s USA game against Belgium, quite rightly praising St. Tim for sterling work in the first half (though the level of the praise, as always with Saints, was over done).
On we go to the second half -- the 55th minute, when a low, hard, 22-yard shot from Belgian defender Nicolas Lombaerts beat St. Tim for the only goal of the game. Darke’s reaction was, of course, to immediately absolve Howard of any blame -- “Nothing Tim Howard could do that time,” then adding, as further proof of the saintly goalkeeper’s innocence, “I think Tim Howard saw that late, it came through bodies.”
It did, but that’s hardly unusual. Anyway, the replays showed Howard moving down quickly as the shot was taken. Agreed -- a tricky one, as the wet ball -- struck with force -- bounced in front of Howard; he got his hand on the ball, but it slipped under him and into the net. Was it savable? Of course -- a saintly infallible keeper ought to make saves like that. Howard did the best he could, but it wasn’t good enough.
So why did Darke feel obliged to underline, twice, that St. Tim could not in any way be blamed for the goal? Because, when you’re in the business of praising Saints, the slightest hint that they are a tad less than perfect must be excused.
The hagiolatry had begun, big time, a day earlier on Monday, when Fox Soccer gave us the Kansas City vs. Los Angeles MLS game, featuring St. David. The appointed worshipers here were JP DellaCamera and Kyle Martino, who waded into their assignment with great gusto.
Things started with a 34-second paean by a breathless Martino who called St. David “the best right foot Major League soccer has ever seen, the smartest soccer player I’ve ever played with, with an ability to pass the ball over any distance and make guys around him better.”
Martino returned later to his having played with Beckham -- “for the first two years he was here” he said, but surely that can’t be right. Beckham played only five MLS games in his first year, 2007, with the Galaxy -- which was Martino’s final year with the team, before his retirement.
JP chimed in to tell us that St. David “in year five of a 5-year contract is trying to win MLS Cup for his team -- he’s having his best year statistically.”
At the 31-minute mark, JP excitedly gushed “look at this pass ...” as St. David slipped a neat ground ball through the KC defense, but the receiver, Adam Cristman, was offside. Maybe Cristman moved too early … or maybe St. David should have made the pass a second or two earlier? The possibilities were never discussed. In the meantime, St. David had taken one poor free kick, and made three inaccurate passes.
The poor passes continued into the second half, but never, not once, did they call forth a criticism from JP or Kyle. They were simply ignored. But a nice flick-pass got a histrionic “What a ball! Early touch ...” treatment from Martino. St. David got further praise when LA scored its second goal in the 74th minute -- a nifty assist to Sean Franklin -- “What a ball from Beckham!” said JP, with Martino adding “What a great ball there from Beckham ... the shrewd thinking, the perfectly paced pass.” Yes, it was a good pass, but, come on guys, it wasn’t one to slobber over.
But where was the acknowledgment that St. David was also making errors? The worst came in the 90th minute when his poor pass gave possession to Kansas City; the ball was promptly lobbed into the L.A. penalty area where Frankie Hejduk handled to give away a PK, allowing Omar Bravo to tie the game. Not a word about St. David’s lapse.
As time ran out, St. David took a poor corner kick; considering that Martino, just 12 minutes earlier, had delivered a short lecture on just how great the Saint’s corner kicks are (with which, on the whole I agree) some comment might have been expected. We got none.
Then at the 95th minute, St. David tried -- and very nearly succeeded -- to dribble through a mass of KC defenders. He was tripped, bringing up a free kick some 24 yards out. Perfect for bend-it-like-Beckham wizardry -- but St. David hit his kick into the wall. So LA’s last chance to win a game in which it had twice taken the lead, was frittered away with a poor free kick. Not a word about that from JP or Martino.
Saints, you see, get special treatment on TV. Clearly that is not the fault of either Beckham or Howard. Both are excellent players who do not need this idolatrous approach. But neither player is the paragon that the TV commentators regale us with.
So one wonders: This necessity to festoon St. David and St. Tim with way-over-the-top praise, and to turn a blind eye to their frailties ... where does this come from? Whatever its origins, we’d be better off without it. Being asked to regard Beckham and Howard as being from another world is simply insulting the viewers’ intelligence -- particularly when the evidence to contradict the notion is often right there in front of us. And -- need it be stressed? -- it does nothing to strengthen the credibility of the announcers.
Paul, should they instead make ridiculous ,absolute comments, like when you said, the East Germans "Have done every study known to man and have never produced a decent player," during the 1986 World Cup? I have to reference back that far (25 years) because that is the last time I heard you call a game on tv. Maybe that's because no one wants to hear from a cranky old man!!!
I think the level of Soccer commentary on TV is average at best. John Harkes will dish out some criticism at times. Kyle Martino adds nothing to a broadcast. I do like the new analyst for ESPN, I believe his name is Ramos. He is not afraid to express his opinion. He also appears to see the game as a whole. Tim Howard is a good goalkeeper, not a great one. He makes great saves, but then misses one like he did against Belgium. What I find perplexing is the near post goals he gave up to Ghana in the WC and to Mexico in the GC.
"The way to equality: A few hours of mountain climbing turn a villain and a saint into two rather equal creatures. Exhaustion is the shortest way to equality and fraternity--and liberty is added eventually by sleep."
Dear Paul: You're going to drive yourself crazy trying to analyze American commentators. They are at best inadequate (and that is a stretch), because they lack the knowledge of the game at a higher level. Best to tune them out or turn down the sound. I think unfortunately they are a hindrance to the education of the American public. HOW DO PEOPLE LIKE THIS GET A JOB IN THIS SPORT? They mis-inform, sugar-coat inadequate play and mistakes or worse yet do not even realize there was a mistake, or understate the mistakes and inadequacies of the players. But that is their job. And like you and me they probably would like to keep their jobs. So they avoid making waves. Hey I like Beckham. Leave him alone. He serves a damn great cross. A cross by the way not a SERVE. That is tennis. Now if you listen to German and Italian and Brasilian commentators you listen to analysts who actually understand the nuances of the game. They already have futebol intelligence. Their fans are ruthless and demanding and will not sit and listen to junk. Our poor Americans are still struggling through 2nd grade "Soccer," as they call the sport which is actually called football or futebol. OMG. Bocanegra called it "football" on TV after the Belgium game. OMG. I instantly liked him. Alexi Lalas has gotten better. I actually listen to what he has to say and agree with most of it. Wonder where he discovered intelligence because when he was back in 1994 he did not have this intrinsic sense of the game. Brandi Chastain actually is rather brilliant at times. Harkes is a mess and needs to not talk. Dark is a pompous english commentator who annoys the hell out of me. Hey during the U20 world cup there was this commentator called Andrew. I said, wow there's an englishman who actually knows something about this sport and low and behold I found out he was AUSTRALIAN. I guess I do not have my accents down as well as I though I did. So I turn to the Spanish stations. A little better but just not up to higher learning levels either. I found the Spanish commentators lacking in, first and foremost, identifying players correctly unless they were from Mexico. It is all a long process. I wish that American commentators would stop using english terms to identify things. It is the FIELD not the pitch. It is ZERO not nil. It is a Rivalry not a DERBY (MISPRONOUNCED DARBY FOR I KNOW NOT WHAT REASON). Well, hey whatever. At least I can get 10 stations showing the game on a regular daily basis. In 1982 I was lucky to see the world cup.
hasta la vista baby!
Paul, lighten up on American soccer and it's components. We are where we are and it is what it is, for now. Our knowledge and participation of the sport here has dramatically improved over the years. Be happy with it. Comment on the negative when you need to, but please, comment on the positive as well. And we do have some of that as well. I like Howard, Dempsey, Beckham, Foudy, Adrian, Darke, Macs and even Lalas. They all bring something to the table to make this a fun sport to watch.
One point is valid. Howard is world class at stopping point blank. But he is rather below average with anything struck hard at him from distance...... Klinsmann is in a tough spot because this weakness was never addressed by Bradley, there is no real competition, and Klinsmann has bigger fish to fry right now.
I agree that Paul is a crotchety OF however bercause of the constant happy talk emanating from the TV media and many of the major bloggers, I find him to be a great counter weight -- besides even if he sometimes overstates a point, the point at issue usually needs to be made! I sometimes wonder if the lack of criticism could come from specific instructions from MLS and US Soccer ???
Hate, hate, hate, is all that comes out of your mouth, poor old man, so many grudges, be and let be, its always horrible if its english or has to do with the job you cant do or nobody gives u chance to do, hey buddy how about u move on and start commentating about something else besides soccer, your lack of arguments and your hatry filled comments are no longer needed.... The funny part is that it says that your comments are a benefit to america's soccer ....wow let me laugh at that again, you focus so much in the negativity of a game that you forget all the good stuff!! is a passion, is a way of live, there is bad and good but in your little tiny world there is only bad...specially if its british!!! Grow up... or retire please!!
I mostly agree with Paul here. The general level of commentary is very bad--I thought ESPN took a step forward in bringing on the Mexican commentator, yes, Jorge Ramos, to its recent telecasts. Howard is good, so is Beckham; but it's true that they (among others--Donovan) are generally insulated from criticism. My main problem with the commentary--it rarely contains any specificity. Too many cliches and not enough analysis.
There is something more tedious: Paul's whining about goalkeepers.
This bloke named Ian Darke is a decent commentator, but I agree with PG. Why do we have this Brit as our national soccer voice? I find most Brits to be more annoying than the most annoying less-knowledgable American commentator. Even the good ones like Darke. I have no problem hearing British accents calling EPL games on BRITISH tv, but if it's an American (USA) audience and especially and American event, then I'd rather hear an American calling the action. Unless that American is one of these annoying Anglophile Americans that feels a need to say things like "pitch" and "nil"
Let's get it straight, please: Jorge Ramos (the soccer dude on ESPN) is from Uruguay. Jorge Ramos (the newscaster on UNIVISION) is from Mexico.