I know, I know. I told you I was taking a couple days off from the Euro 2008 Blog before the games resume with Wednesday’s semifinal between Germany and Turkey. But after spending more than 50 hours watching ESPN’s extensive coverage of Euro 2008 I couldn’t resist putting together a bonus blog with one major thought on the tournament:
• Andy Gray should continue being ESPN’s lead broadcaster for every major tournament, including the 2010 World Cup. It’s amazing to me how many American media bosses and editors have failed to grasp a simple idea: it’s better to cover soccer with people who 1) know the game and 2) are good at what they do. Just because you have a good delivery—Brent Musburger in 1998, Dave O’Brien in 2006—doesn’t mean you’ll know the game. And just because you know the game—Ty Keough in ‘02, Marcelo Balboa in ‘06—doesn’t mean you’ll be good at broadcasting it.
By hiring Gray, the veteran Sky Sports commentator, for Euro 2008, ESPN finally found someone who isn’t just good at both things, he’s great at them. Here’s a guy who played the game at a high level and points out all the little things that you might have missed, who loves the sport but isn’t afraid to be critical (though not shrill), who doesn’t digress into pre-packaged storylines or off-the-field nonsense, and who raises the level of his colleagues—particularly in the ESPN studio—by raising the level of discourse and (get this) talking about the game we’re watching.
Perhaps most impressive, Gray is able to look at a game and anticipate what’s coming next. In the first half of the game between Turkey and the Czech Republic, Gray pointed out that the Turks (with four midfielders) were having a hard time finding gaps to pass through the five-man Czech midfield and speculated that Turkey would soon try going over the top with longballs. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened—and what led to the Turks bringing on an extra midfielder in the second half.
For me that ability to anticipate is what separates a really good analyst in any sport from the rest of the pack. Tommy Smyth is a pleasant guy who clearly loves the game, but he just doesn’t have that ability. When Spain’s Carles Puyol went off with an injury against Sweden, Smyth predicted that his replacement (Raúl Albiol) would go to right back while Sergio Ramos moved to Puyol’s spot at centerback. Really? Both Ramos and Albiol can play either spot, but Ramos is one of the world’s best right backs, so why would you move him? (Ramos stayed at right back.) With Portugal leading the Czechs 2-1 in the second half, Smyth predicted that incoming sub Jan Koller would replace fellow forward Milan Baros. Really? Why would the Czechs stay with one forward when they needed a goal and Baros was having a good game? (Midfielder Tomás Galásek came off instead.)
The great thing about having Gray in the ESPN booth is that we now have a standard of excellence by which we can judge other soccer broadcasters. No longer will it be O.K. to be unprepared or to butcher the names of players (which still happens with alarming frequency in the ESPN studio show). Gray isn’t perfect—he got it wrong on the non-offside call involving Italy’s Christian Panucci against the Netherlands, and he does drone on a bit about All Things Scottish—but he has proved to be the best soccer commentator in the history of American television, and I can only hope ESPN retains him for World Cup 2010.
Now that I’ve seen 24 games of Euro 2008 on ESPN (i.e., all but the four least meaningful final group-stage games), it seems like a good time to note other hits and misses in the TV coverage:
• Just having every Euro game on live (and most of them in HD) has been revolutionary.
• Andy Gray.
• Refusing to dumb down the broadcast for non-soccer fans (which insults everyone). It’s O.K. to say football here. We know they mean soccer.
• The ESPN axis 3D video tool to analyze replays (at least when it’s working).
• Devoting time to a pre-game show and including the national anthems and postgame.
• The camera shots during games (penalty kicks excluded). You really do get to see nearly everything that matters—and on replays, too.
• A general competence among the majority of ESPN’s broadcasters, led by play-by-play men Derek Rae and Adrian Healy (even if both can rely a bit too much on cliches), studio analyst Julie Foudy and game analyst Robbie Mustoe.
• The strange need for the play-by-play men to read every single graphic that comes onto the screen, as if we can’t read it ourselves.
• Too many mispronunciations of names on the studio show.
• The Anglo-centric emphasis. A player may have had a solid seven-year career in German club soccer, but if he had one bad year in England you can be sure we’ll hear all about what he did in England and next to nothing about what he did in Germany. (Rae is slightly better than Healey in his open-mindedness.)
• The video angle on penalty-kick shootouts. I know this has more to do with the Euro 2008 feed than ESPN, but it’s frustrating to see only a side-view (instead of a rear view) of most penalties taken during shootouts—and almost no replays of spot-kicks.
What’s your sense of the TV coverage? Please post your thoughts below and check back on the Euro 2008 Blog Wednesday morning ...