During the buildup to yesterday’s Champions League final, as the always-rousing official UEFA anthem played and Ronaldo winked mischievously at the camera, I thought to myself: This is completely ridiculous. The dancers, the banners, the beer ads, the #riskeverything hashtag, the Portuguese guys dressed as sailors – the whole pre-game spectacle.
And then Fox cut to its Los Angeles studio – to Warren Barton, Rob Stone and Brad Friedel, who should have known better – and I soon found myself pining for more bad Euro pop, more weird dancing and more Heineken commercials.
Before the game, I hoped that Fox’s studio crew, or even its dumb-and-dumber commentary team, would produce something more than the usual platitudes about “the rivalry aspect” of a match featuring two teams from the same city. I hoped that someone at Fox would delve into the complex political history of Real and Atletico and that Stone would stop calling the kickoff “the kick.” Alas, my hopes were disappointed. In a dull pregame montage, Real and Atletico fans talked about how excited they were. After Sergio Ramos’ equalizer, Barton, whose lengthy career heading balls in the Premier League explains a lot, noted that “the pendulum [had] turned” in Real Madrid’s favor.
But it wasn’t all bad: at least we were spared the “wisdom” of Joe Machnik – or Dr. Joe, as Stone and Barton call him – a former MLS official whose analysis of the Europa League final was so lousy that, I like to think, Fox decided to bench him for yesterday’s game. Or maybe he had the flu. I honestly don’t know, but since soccer fans are stuck with Fox for at least another eight years (it owns the television rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups), I’ll give the network the benefit of the doubt.
However, my magnanimity does not extend to play-by-play commentator Gus Johnson, who failed in the seemingly simple task of learning how to pronounce each team’s name. Eric Wynalda – a color commentator who, unlike Johnson, actually understands soccer – wasn’t much better: his default reaction to dramatic moments consists of a lame “Oh, wow,” followed by a few seconds of bluster, followed by Johnson interrupting to say something stupid.
Which is a shame, because the audience for this game would have benefitted from informed commentary. A substantial number of American fans watch the Premier League and almost nothing else; they’ve heard of Diego Costa but probably haven’t seen him play more than once or twice. A commentator familiar with the Spanish league would have taught those fans a little about Atletico Madrid – about its supporters, about its history, about the significance of Arda Turan’s injury.
Instead, Johnson compared the game to “West Side Story,” because, you know, American viewers like it when American commentators allude to American pop culture. Thankfully, Johnson did not call the game “the Madrid subway series,” but it’s the sort of thing he might have done, and that pretty much says it all.
The notion that American soccer fans prefer to hear American voices is utterly wrongheaded. Fans want to hear good commentary; they don’t care about the commentator’s nationality. ESPN figured that out after the 2006 World Cup. NBC has also caught on. Fox, however, remains convinced that Johnson is destined to become the Voice of Soccer in America. But here’s the thing: Americans already have a Voice of Soccer. His name is Martin Tyler, he has (horrors!) a British accent, and he knows there’s no “h” in Atletico.
Apparently, Johnson is an enthusiastic and well-informed basketball commentator. Good for him. But in the year since I wrote this article about Fox’s grandiose plans for Johnson’s future, his soccer commentary has gotten even worse. The Real-Atletico final was one of the most exciting games of the year, another example of how entertaining the Champions League knockout stage has become. The match deserved better. And so did we.