As football fans, we all know the fear that comes with tuning into a match. Not that sinking stomach, oh-lord-will-my-team-get-a-result gnawing that comes from being a fan, but that ever-present dread present while waiting for the announcer’s voice to pipe in. Will it be the man who used to play for the rival side, the one who spends the entire game criticizing our team? It might be the guy who still believes that getting the ball is the decisive factor in whether or not to show a card. And, of course, there’s always the possibility you’ll get the former player who spends half the match talking about how players aren’t nearly as hard as they were 30 years ago.
For those in the US who enjoy watching European soccer, this fear seems to be magnified ten-fold. Fans tuning into NBC feel the terror has diminished somewhat. The team they’ve put together for the Premier League is competent, even thoughtful much of the time, and of course they’ve received kudos for bringing in Rebecca Lowe to ask intelligent questions of the men. But for anyone watching an ESPN, beIN (we’re not wading into the Great beIN commentating debate) or, god help us, a Fox broadcast (who are we kidding; we’re almost certainly watching it on FoxSoccer2Go, what with FS1’s need to show three hours of pregame coverage for American football) the desire to hit the mute button is nearly inextinguishable.
Christopher Harris produced an excellent article for his World Soccer Talk last month outlining why, exactly, the coverage at Fox is so awful – in a nutshell, the network believes Americans are utterly clueless about soccer, so they’ve got to dumb it down for the masses. That explains the “analysis” we hear from the studio team – and their constant fixation on US national players – but given that Fox often doesn’t use its own announcers to call the match, we probably can’t blame them for all our woes.
There are many that would argue that soccer commentating is an exceedingly difficult job, and they’re absolutely right about that. And no matter what, fans are going to yell at the TV, angry about a commentator calling a five-man defense “three at the back” or arguing against the claim that it’s possible to defend against Arjen Robben.
But it is the job of these men to provide, if not engaging analysis, at least the correct facts (I’m not even going to get into mispronunciation of names, although as anyone with a vaguely ‘ethnic’ sounding name will tell you, there’s little that makes you feel like an outsider like someone stuttering through your name). Yet here’s just a few of the mistakes those providing their voice to American broadcasts have made over the past two months.*
- Telling us that Serge Gnabry was on loan from Arsenal (Werder Bremen actually bought him outright)
- Stating that Miralem Pjanić represented Yugoslavia (he was born in 1990. Bosnia left Yugoslavia in 1991)
- Informing viewers that Stefan Kießling was one of Leverkusen’s top scorers last season (to be fair, he was fourth…with all of five goals)
- Asserting that Christian Maggio, a man with 200+ appearances with Napoli, could replace an injured centerback in a Champions League game (there may be confusion over whether he’s a right-back or right winger, we’ll grant you that, but never a central defender)
*It’s impossible to remember whether these mistakes were made by those employed by these broadcasters, or those on the international feed. Either way, they’re mistakes easily rectified by simply paying attention to the industry you’re working in.
Perhaps you think I’m screaming into the void here. That soccer coverage has always been awful in the U.S., and aside from exercising control over the mute button – or flipping to the Spanish language coverage, if you’ve got it – there’s no remedy to be found. That’s not the case. There are at least a few good men out there providing accurate, engaging, thoughtful commentary, and I had the privilege of speaking with one over email.
(And – excellent news – he also says there’s no reason a woman can’t do the job. But we’ll get to that.)
Derek Rae got his start at age 15(!) covering Aberdeen games on hospital radio, and by 19 he was with BBC Scotland. He worked mostly in radio in those early years, before making the shift to TV. But it’s not his 30 years experience that mark Rae as one of the best football commentators around – it’s his professional approach to the sport.
When it comes to commentary on this great sport of football, obviously one of the biggest mistakes an announcer can make is mixing up players. Rae notes that, beyond learning the players’ physical and technical characteristics, he brings binoculars to check their boot colors: “It can be an invaluable way of making sure I have the right player in a crowded penalty area scene.”
So much for anyone who rails against modern football by demanding a return to plain-colored boots, right? But don’t swear off traditional methods just yet:
I’m a bit old-fashioned in that I hand write everything, color code it and scribble it on one A4 piece of paper for every game. I should tell you that my handwriting is the tiniest in the world! But there’s a method to the madness. If I need to check my sheet on match day, intuitively know exactly where it is on the page, albeit in my own strange code.
That match sheet might amount to the least amount of preparation Rae makes for a match. He likens it to an exam, saying testing your own knowledge is vital to making sure everything flows during the game. Reading is essential, and Rae is particularly partial to Germany’s Kicker, calling it his “world football bible.” Unfortunately for those of us who aren’t very high on the German level of Duolingo, Kicker isn’t available in English.
But is not knowing German really an excuse for failing to provide correct facts during football matches? Should those without fluency in Spanish, or a rudimentary understanding of Italian, really be expected to call a game with intelligence and accuracy?
Yes. Considering the enormous amount of information available on this lovely thing called the internet, we have every right to expect our commentators to provide, at a minimum, correct details. As Rae says, “The best commentary should sound like it’s an integral part of the game rather than something shoehorned in. I often feel that if I’m doing my job, it’s a bit like being an in form referee. No one really notices us!”
Then there’s what Gandhi says: Be the change you want to see in the world. It’s almost certainly too late for me, but you readers can turn the tide. Rae has some fantastic advice, and I’m going to share it in its entirety:
Be prepared to work tirelessly. It’s a wonderful job but the part you hear on the air is the frosting on the cake. The ingredients that go into making it happen take a long time to put together and it can feel repetitive at times. Hours and hours studying. Yet it’s necessary for the final product to be as smooth as we would like it to be. Remember it can take years to hone the skills properly and it’s important to realise that. Everyone is in a hurry but it genuinely takes years. Looking after the voice is also crucial and in this sense it’s a bit like being a singer. You have to be ready to go again maybe a day later, so shouting in a loud bar or restaurant is a no, no. Your voice is your musical instrument. Also understand that radio and television are distant cousins rather than siblings. In television, it’s often a matter of when not to speak.
“When not to speak” is music to my ears. If more announcers would realize that sometimes, it’s best to just let us watch, our soccer experience would be improved dramatically. And if they’d constantly watch matches, read articles, take notes and hone their skills, we may no longer need to take to Twitter to rant about the blather being spewed across our sets.
And if only more commentators would emulate Rae’s approach to pronunciation, well, the number of headaches I get on matchdays would decrease exponentially:
If I’m on site at a game for BT Sport, as right holding broadcasters, we’re lucky enough to have access to tunnels and players, I make a point of asking the player himself to confirm pronunciation of his name. Failing that, I check with sources from his country and have been known to call consulates for guidance. Also my background with languages probably makes me more obsessed with getting this right. It’s certainly handy.