FIFA World Cup 2006 retrospect: TV commentary

Growing up in India, sports telecasts for football games have traditionally been European, mostly British. The BBCs and Sky Sports ruled the roost. There is something to say about the commentary on those telecasts: sparse, impartial and devoid of human-interest pieces. Football afficionados (I like to think I'm one of this large group of people) like this experience.

I contrast that to World Cup broadcasts on American networks, ABC and ESPN, I've been watching this past month; and see how the networks' experience and insight into basketball, baseball, ice-hockey and American football have influenced their commentary and overall presentation. These broadcasts are chock full of random statistics on players, sidelights on the venues and teams, and much too much talk. There is an unusual focus on the (perceived) stars, creating a cult of personality: where some chosen men get too much attention, sometimes undeservedly so. I've seen England games where Beckham and Rooney were on the commentators' lips practically every other minute but these two (I admit talented) gents didn't do much in those games to merit that kind of attention. Thankfully, the camera isn't in the control of the commentators; it followed the ball for the most part, save for those occassions when the producers would cut to a replay of a move that happened ten minutes ago. As the Times' World Cup blog puts it:

American TV sportscasting is full of factoids, full of graphics, full of breakaways from the midst of play for prerecorded human-interest backgrounders, full of color analysts overexplaining what happened a couple of minutes ago even as new, more urgent things are happening in front of our eyes, full of overpacked broadcast booths with three-man teams, sideline reporters, spotters, graphics people and telestrators, all breathlessly jostling for air time.

At times the impartiality of the commentators was also in question. Some teams like Brazil, Argentina and Italy were treated with godlike status -- their glorious past history was the subject of much banter while their performance on the field was conveniently ignored -- while others with arguably as much talent and potential, if not more, didn't get even a passing mention. The one common strain I've seen in all my life of watching and playing the game amateurly is that every game is different. On a given day, anyone can beat anyone else.

Football is a very fast-paced game and the play on the fields -- the players' skills, passing, and set pieces -- mesmerizes millions around the world, in every possible timezone, to stay glued to their TV sets. In this world cup, 192 countries competed and were whittled down to 32 that got to play for the cup in Germany. That's what makes this the "World" cup. It is a stature unmatched by any other. Sadly, the stature of the broadcasts begs many questions. My pet peeves:

  • Play the team arrivals and anthems before every game; show some respect.

  • Cut the smalltalk; I don't need to be reminded you showed up for work. I also don't need play by play commentary.

  • It's okay to talk about a player's club affiliation but don't wax eloquent about what he did that summer 2003. It distracts from the game I'm trying to watch.

  • Be impartial. Please.

  • Don't elevate personalities and obsess with them. This is still a team sport. One man makes or breaks a game as much as one man can make or break a space shuttle.

  • To the networks: please employ people who know what they're talking about. Wynalda and Lalas were good players (not great, mind you) but are bad analysts. Get someone who understands the game and can articulate it better than us unwashed masses. Ditto for commentators.

I understand football isn't like American football where you stop the clock every minute and go to commercial break every other minute. Some things you've learned from American sports can be reused, just not everything. Some things need to be learned anew, or re-learned. We can strive to do better, can't we?