David Dodds explores the world of the English commentator…
Football hipster checklists have abounded over the last couple of months, and there have been more and more incarnations lately. Most of them are spot on and I imagine the writers and most readers of TFN find themselves either playfully nodding in agreement and being good sports because they see a picture of themselves painted in these checklists, or rendered incandescent because they see themselves in the lists but are reluctant admit it.
But there’s one curious omission to the lists I’ve seen. None of them mention our—which is to say the generation of hyper-informed and thoroughly post-modern omnivorous consumers of football from leagues of all shapes, sizes and stadium attendances—attitude towards commentators. When I say commentator, I mean play-by-play commentators, the people who are there to tell you what’s happening and who’s doing it. Martin Tyler, David Coleman and Ian Darke, for example. We often malign our commentators for their shoddy pronunciation, their obsession with regurgitating stats and their unbridled chauvinism during international and European games. These hipster checklists all point out rightly that we revile any pundit who isn’t Gary Neville or Pat Nevin, but make no mention of our similar attitude to play-by-play commentators.
For years now, I have been critical of commentators. But when I sat down to properly examine my attitude towards them instead of just spouting the same knee-jerk reaction, I’ve come to have a little more sympathy that I did before. I’m going to proceed with this article by looking at the three great staples of English football commentary.
I conceived of this article after originally sitting down to write something funny for TFN’s birthday. Looking through the catalogue of what I’ve penned in the past few months, it hasn’t escaped me that my output has been largely roundups, previews and mad love for Jürgen Klopp (something else to check off on those hipster lists), with the occasional exposition on the financial structures of German football or exploration of the state of Ukrainian football. My original idea for something idiosyncratic was to write a ‘guide to English commentator pronunciation’ in which I listed the hundreds of mispronunciations of player, manager and team names I’ve heard and remembered over the years. I wanted to talk about the scores of ways I’ve heard Jakub Błaszczykowski’s name butchered, the reticence of commentators to say Anzhi Makhachkala, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Crvena Zvezda and to lampoon the way that commentators who’ve been assigned to La Liga for years still say Özil as ‘oh zil’.
My line of argument was to be ‘if I can get it right, then surely people whose job it is to say things to an audience can say them right!’ But then it occurred to me that it would just be hypocritical. I can pronounce İlkay Gündoğan and Benedikt Höwedes, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Sokratis Papasthathopoulos, but I know for a fact that the way I pronounce Valencia, Ronaldinho and Gus Poyet is wrong. What would happen if commentators suddenly bowed to our whims and developed a super-human trans-lingual elocution with polished annunciation and not a single stray ñ or ö? Would most viewers know who HO-NOW-GEE-ÑU was?
I work on radio and when I’m on air in the middle of raconteuring or dramatising some explosive narrative, the last thing I’m thinking about is how Armenians are going to feel about my pronunciation of Henrikh Mkhitaryan or how embarrassed I’m going to be next time I’m with a group of Turkish people and they bring up my botched attempt to say Karabükspor. I’m thinking about clarity. It’s likely that most commentators do their research in the same place that most of us do: the internet. There are plenty of sites, like forvo, that have pronunciation guides for names, but the fact remains that most names still don’t have pronunciation guides available. It’s therefore pretty unreasonable to expect commentators to be able to flawlessly pronounce everything with a native’s flair. For this to be possible commentators would have to have access to a wealth of native speakers or experts in every conceivable language. I’ve therefore revised my previous position of ridiculing rigid English pronunciations of foreign names. That still doesn’t excuse bad preparation and complete mutilations of names to the extent that the viewer has no idea who you’re talking about, but next time John Motson says CAR-ZOR-LA instead of CA-THOR-LA I’m probably not going to get too annoyed.
This one is probably the least forgivable. But in levelling the criticism that commentators spout too many banal, obviously Wikipedia’d facts in lieu of silence or something constructive, we automatically assume that everyone else has the same level of contextual-awareness about the players as we do. In some cases, stats can help set the scene. Stats aren’t everything, but saying something about Yohan Cabaye’s pass completion rate, the lack of ariel challenges won by Fabricio Coloccini or the distance covered by Jonás Gutiérrez every game does tell us something substantive. Of course, these stats on their own are useless, and I think we should demonise commentators who just float the stats and nothing else, but if a commentator can strike a balance between statistical analysis and other forms of analysis (tactical, movement etc.) and also admit his limitations in that he has no idea if that player he’s talking about was just on a week-long booze-fuelled odyssey thousands of miles away then stats can help.
As I’ve said, the dominant assumption underpinning this critique is that everyone has the same level of knowledge. That’s simply not true. Some people have less than others. I don’t intend to be condescending here. Having football knowledge doesn’t make those who have it special snowflakes, it just means they’ve got more time and nothing else to do with it. I actually think the amount of knowledge most football fans have is completely underappreciated. With the popularity of stats-intensive games like FIFA and Football Manager over the past decade our understanding of the game is being infused with more and more information. Who plays in what position, rough financial values, where they’re from and strengths and weaknesses are all things you’ll get a rough idea of if you play these games.
But there are still many, many fans who don’t play them, and who don’t spend as much time as the average football fanzine writer on Wikipedia and Opta. So the job of the commentator is to find a way to present that knowledge in a digestible way for everyone. Reminding viewers of the nationality of a player, where they’ve played before, how long they’ve been at the club, the number of international caps and of course all of the performance-related data I mentioned above is probably very, very useful for someone like my dad who doesn’t sit watching a game with instant access to thousands of statistics, and who doesn’t check twitter and newssites every day for the latest updates. Every Newcastle game I’ve watched with commentary since the end of the January transfer window has had mention of Coloccini’s saga with San Lorenzo and his desire to leave. But when it came up in a conversation with a friend who follows football only peripherally, and who doesn’t support Newcastle, he didn’t know anything about it. That’s who the commentators were talking to when they mentioned it.
We can often forget that we’re not the only ones watching and listening. People who don’t devote as much time researching football as others are still fans. Does it mean that commentators pander to the lowest common denominator in terms of statistical and empirical knowledge? Yes, it does. But if you cover that base you’ve covered all of them, from a 10-year old lad watching the Milan derby for the first time to an obsessed rossonero from Yorkshire who has shrines to James Richardson and Gabriele Marcotti and a Gennaro Gattuso duvet cover in his room.
I think the problem of stat regurgitation, then, needs to be reframed. We should oppose commentators who spout stats to fill the time. But we shouldn’t have much against those who are perfectly capable of properly contextualising their statistics, or who are trying to paint a picture for the fans who don’t pay quite as much attention as others.
Bias and Chauvinism
It has long been established in media theory that it’s impossible to be completely unbiased. We’re a product of our cultural, social, economic and political surroundings, and that’s reflected even in the supposedly objective things that we do. That’s fair enough, and I think most people accept that this is the way it is with commentators too. There are a few different manifestations of commentator bias. First of all there’s national bias, which occurs on two levels. The first level is during international games, the second level is during games when an English club are playing a non-English club. In both cases there are a couple of dire consequences for the viewer. Commentators irrationally coming down on the side of English players who suddenly become infallible (even when they’re in the wrong), asymmetrical coverage of the non-English team compared to the English teams and sometimes unprecedented amounts of hope in the most abject situations (the English team are down 4-0 away, but they’ve just had a shot on target in 90+7…could this be the start of a monumental comeback?!).
I actually find this to be a bit of a parody of commentators. The incidences I’ve mentioned above are pretty rare, and even commentators who sometimes commentate on the clubs they support (think Clive Tyldesley on Manchester United or Alan Parry on Liverpool) rarely stoop to those levels. I wonder, if, during international matches commentators think they’re reflecting the optimism of the general population about England’s chances. It probably does have something to do with the commentator’s perception of his audience. If he thinks that his audience would react badly were he to launch a Ray Hudsonesque attack on the team, then obviously he’s not going to say anything of the sort. It’s safer just to cultivate delusion than it is to become known as the traitorous commentator who hates his nation. Of course, I imagine the majority of the country wouldn’t really care that much and most people in the country have no problem deriding the poor performance of the national team.
But as I scrutinise my own take on commentators I’ve come to realise that I, and most others, deal purely in generalisations. Sometimes commentators are chauvinistic, and there are plenty of examples of it. But there are also countless occasions on which commentators admit that England have been outplayed, outfoxed and outwitted by a superior opponent. The best defence in favour of the commentator on the subject of nationalistic tendencies is probably that it’s not a black and white issue. A commentator can be heavily biased in favour of England, and allow that to creep into his judgement of challenges and decisions, but at the same time be perfectly capable of admitting the weaknesses in the team. It’s much like our own approach to watching our own teams play. Completely objective automatons would actually make for quite boring commentators in international fixtures. Not that anyone is naturally capable of that anyway.
English commentators in the States
In the United States, where football is still in a crucial stage of development and evolution, the burden on commentators is considerably higher. Despite the huge and healthy growth of football in there over the past decade, some regions still lack an organic football culture—the kind we take for granted here in England. In other regions the growth of the sport is hampered by various social, cultural and economic issues that have been more than adequately expounded on in broadsheet football discourse. Thus in America the responsibilities of the commentator are even greater. They— along with their co-commentators, presenters and pundits—need to be able to facilitate the transition of people from various states of indifference or outright vitriolic apoplexy (I’m thinking of the casual homophobia of the soccer is gay brigade) to people interested in consuming more football.
There’s obviously no empirical evidence on this, but based purely on anecdote, many American fans, while following a team in the States also keep a keen eye on what’s going on in Europe. Many even cut their teeth watching games in big European leagues. So given the status of European football in America—and there’s no need to resort to anecdote on this one, you just have to look at the amount of money various networks have poured into securing broadcast rights for European football leagues—one would think there would be greater attention paid to the way in which it was presented to Americans via commentary.
Would it help to have Americans presenting in styles that American viewers were more used to? Would this be more conducive to inspiring people to watch? Do American commentators have styles that are all that different to English commentators anyway? Sure, there’s a heterogeneity of styles between the commentators of any given nation, but they tend to follow the same patterns, regardless of nuance. Has there been some commentary imperialism? Do European—or in some cases Latin American—commentators set standards that American football commentators feel obliged to follow? Or has English football, with its increasingly transparent emphasis on bombast and over-production borrow from the way other American sports are presented? Is it wrong to assume that Americans uninterested in football would be more interested if they were hearing Americans commentating on it? I don’t actually know the answer to these questions, but they’re worth thinking about as English commentators become globalised, not just in the states, but on international English-language coverage broadcast all around the world.
I’ve found writing this very productive. When I woke up this morning I would have happily joined in any conversation about how terrible English commentators are. “God! Why can’t they just get Martin Tyler and Gary Neville to do them all? Or no one at all? I’ll turn the bloody sound off in protest next time I hear Motty annunciate Azpilicueta incorrectly!” But I’ve come to realise that the commentator is not speaking to me all the time. He’s speaking to everyone, and everyone knows and wants to hear different things. It’s actually a very difficult job when you think about it. Should they sacrifice consistency and clarity in order to meet some absurdly impossible standard of pronunciation? Should they stop reminding people who is from where and how long they’ve been here, and which manager had a stroke of genius in moving Gareth Bale from defence to the wing? On most channels, commentators cover all the bases. From casual fan who only watches footy when he’s down the pub with his mates, to guy who follows his own club only, to those of us who have a superabundance of information about the game at our finger tips every day. All of these people are fans, and they’re all consumers who drive the demand for football and keep the money flowing in.
There are some things I wish commentators did more of, like talk about the shape of the team and their movement—because that’s actually very difficult to gauge when you’re not watching it in the stadium. But despite some flaws, I think the view we have of most commentators is largely based on parody and the assumption that everyone knows and wants to hear the same things. And that’s a fallacious assumption.