Explaining the Beautiful Game

A comment over on Goal, the New York Times‘ fine soccer blog (though I’ve always found it silly that newspapers insist on calling their non-printed commentary “blogs”) got me thinking about the extent to which Americans don’t understand soccer—not from a cultural standpoint, which is a separate topic entirely, but from a technical standpoint.

DSC_9982 by edtrigger on flickr.com via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives license

Commenter DMacM131 writes, in response to Jeffrey Marcus’ post, “Green Faces the Music; Chaochi Repeats His Mistake”:

As a quadrennial soccer fan, I was in the dark about many actions […] I hope the US team gets a better draw next game… Not the competition, but the commentators. I wouldn’t be offended if a commentator explained some of the baseball rules during the World Series or hockey rules and strategy during the Stanley Cup.

Several other commenters chimed in on this point, arguing back and forth about whether a World Cup broadcast is truly the time and place to explain offsides or the implications of receiving a yellow card. It’s an interesting question, one that gets to the heart of soccer’s struggle to capture America’s interest as a major component of our sporting life (as opposed to being primarily a children’s sport).

Some people are “in the know,” aware of the predominant stylistic differences between the Premier League and Serie A, aware of what a 451 formation looks like and why a team might employ such a structure, and are watching all of the World Cup group games that they can. And some people tune in once every four years to watch the US National Team play on a national free-to-air television network, much as they might have tuned in to “Wide World of Sports” two decades ago to see rugby or motorcycle racing. To whom do you cater? The existing fan, or the potential fan?

With that question in mind, I watched the ESPN3 live stream of the Spain v Switzerland game (and a shock result it was!), with Derek Rae and Robbie Mustoe handling the play-by-play and color, respectively, to see just how much they explained. Quite a lot, as it turned out, and with no condescension to the experienced viewer.

Perhaps they had gotten a memo from their higher-ups to leaven their commentary with a bit more basic explanation—I believe it was Martin Tyler and Ally McCoist who mentioned in their Brazil v DPRK commentary that they had received a “letter” asking what the term “Group of Death” meant, though if that were a viewer letter or an executive letter remained unclear—but in any event, there were some nice touches to the Rae/Mustoe commentary.

Each of the yellow card bookings was explained (shirt pulling and hand ball when the arms were in an unnatural position) and some care was taken in discussing a 50/50 ball that resulted in an injury but no booking. Additionally, they clarified the Bundesliga (calling it “the German Bundesliga”) and just where Italian club Sampdoria was located. They did not run through the offsides rule directly, but in watching the replays of offside situations, they did explicitly note that the offender was behind the last defender—not an entirely accurate recounting of the rule, but sufficient to get the point across.

On balance, I thought the commentary was sufficiently explanatory to keep a novice viewer informed, yet it still provided enough in-depth expert information to please this grizzled veteran viewer. There were plenty of references to the players’ club teams and the players’ form during the season. ESPN’s strategy of employing non-American play-by-play and color commentary (except for John Harkes, alas) seems to be paying off. These guys know the players and know the game. In particular, the Ian Darke/Efan Ekoku team doesn’t pull any punches, being willing to call boring play boring—they’re my favorite team of the bunch, though the Rae/Mustoe team is close.

For me, though, I think it’s incumbent upon ESPN and ABC to try their damnedest to draw in an audience and keep them watching. If that means explaining that two yellow cards in a single match will get you kicked out of the match, so be it. It’s easy enough, and the announcing teams are skillful enough, to explain that information not in a “Soccer 101” tone but in explaining why, for instance, a center back with a yellow card already might be hesitant to make a robust aerial challenge.

The broadcast rights for the World Cup weren’t exactly cheap, and for American soccer, the cost of failing to retain an audience is more expensive still.

(Image courtesy of edtrigger via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives license.)

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