Two weeks ago, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund played 90 minutes of exhilarating cup-final football in front of a packed Wembley Stadium. The German fans – whom English writers often describe as “loud” and “enthusiastic,” but whose beer-drinking and flag-waving and non-stop cheering are, I’m sure, better characterized by some unwieldy German polysyllable – made a lot of noise. Jurgen Klopp performed his usual touchline gymnastics, and Arjen Robben scored a stoppage-time winner. In the gantry, a middle-aged basketball commentator shuffled his papers, consulted a color-coded pronunciation key, and told America that, “We’ve got a ballgame.”
In October 2011, Fox Sports secured US broadcasting rights for the 2018 World Cup. This news pleased approximately no one. Fox has broadcast Premier League games since the 1990s, but its coverage is widely mocked; next season, NBC will take over Fox’s Premier League rights.
Last year, Eric Shanks, the president of Fox Sports, asked NCAA basketball commentator Gus Johnson to lead Fox’s World Cup commentary team. Johnson, a self-confessed “soccer novice” whose quirky catchphrases and general boisterousness have made him wildly popular among fans of college sports, has apparently spent the last 18 months studying all things football. In 2012, he called about a dozen San Jose Earthquakes games for a California radio station; this year, he anchored Fox Soccer’s Champions League coverage. Shanks insists that by covering elite-level club games, Johnson will eventually become an elite-level commentator: “Based on the radio games and the practice games Gus has done, I think this is going to work.”
The mainstream media pretty much agrees. A recent New York Times profile cast Johnson as a smart, humble sports nut trying to get his head around this here soccer business. In the article, Johnson practices pronouncing Kevin Grosskreutz’s name, which is great because – look! – he actually cares about the little things. He’s a bright-faced, happy-go-lucky American alone in the big world of European football! He has met Martin Tyler and asked him for a few pointers! He has kowtowed to Ian Darke! Sure, he’s made stupid mistakes – calling Ryan Giggs an “Englishman,” for instance – but this kid really wants it.
During a first-half lull in the Bayern-Dortmund match, Johnson mentioned “the great Zinedine Zidane,” carefully enunciating each syllable. The reference seemed weirdly forced, as if Johnson were reading directly from a fact sheet, or as if one of Fox’s producers had just told him to name-check Zidane because, you know, Zizou rules and stuff. And then it occurred to me that Johnson has probably never seen Zidane play, YouTube remixes of That Incident notwithstanding. Probably never watched Zidane’s Real Madrid team or his Juventus team or even his World Cup-winning France team. Was this Johnson’s first Champions League final? Did he catch last year’s highlights?
American fans have been through this before. During the 2006 World Cup, ABC commentator Dave O’Brien was, as Grantland’s Brian Phillips put it, “hustled into the booth with a PowerBar and somebody else’s notes.” Fox’s Curt Menefee has also made a few underwhelming cameo appearances. The networks claim that these broadcasters make football more accessible; in reality, they dumb it down.
ESPN, by contrast, has taken a far different approach, building an impressive roster of foreign talent, featuring Darke, Tyler, Roberto Martinez, Steve McMannaman, and former Wimbledon striker Efan Ekoku. I don’t care that none of these guys is American — nationality has nothing to do with anything. Tyler is popular not because he uses Britishisms like “pitch” and “nil,” but because he knows when to talk and when to let the action speak for itself, when to defer to the enthusiastic ex-pro sitting next to him and when to interrupt Gary Neville’s occasional rambles. He’s popular because he’s good. Maybe in 10 years, when today’s teenagers break into the industry, we’ll finally get a great American football commentator, someone who grew up listening to Tyler and who understands the sport’s intricacies. Until then, Fox should settle for what’s already available: several world-class commentators who happen to be English.
Johnson’s overreacts to routine long-distance shots, and his analysis is so incoherent, so bereft of anything resembling tactical sophistication, that during the Champions League final, he managed to make Warren Barton sound intelligent. Shanks admits that “by no means does Gus think he is Martin Tyler or Ian Darke at this point,” but he’s confident that Johnson “will continue to get better” – and, after all, the 2018 World Cup is still five years away. But that’s five Champions League finals from now. Why risk ruining those matches on the off chance that Johnson will learn Grosskreutz’s name in time for Russia ‘18?
Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming about Landon Donovan’s last-minute goal against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup, the goal that sent the United States into the first knockout round. Darke, an Englishman, called the Algeria game. When the goal went in, he shouted “Go! Go! USA,” and everything seemed to slow down. The players piled on top of each other, and Tim Howard collapsed in ecstasy, and Donovan began to cry. For a second, the dispiriting politics of televised sports – the rampant commercialism, the continued success of Alexi Lalas, the myopia that drove Johnson’s hiring – faded into the background, and all that mattered was Donovan’s goal. Great broadcasters make inherently dramatic moments even more magical. Their commentary becomes the soundtrack to our greatest memories.
And then the referee blew his whistle; Darke, who had been practically hyperventilating, finally paused for breath; and it was all over.