ESPN's coverage of Euro 2012 is rotten

Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko scored twice in his teams 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Sweden in Euro 2012. (Zuma Press photo)

Anybody who knows me well knows that I’m obsessed with soccer. I maintained a nearly game-by-game Arsenal blog for close to two years for an accumulated audience of like 20 people. They got used to 3,000 word recapitulations of match reports they had already read online at The Guardian, embroidered ornately with the passionate tactical and backroom suppositions of someone with no more access to the manager and players than they enjoyed. This was before ESPN put their money towards a world football website, which I still can’t stand.

If you’ve followed the world’s most popular sport for more than, say, 10 years, then you know we’re in the midst of a television broadcasting revolution that has seen its succession of casualties. Irish-American types (Seamus Malin and Tommy Smyth) who moonlighted in Bristol, Connecticut studios alongside American stars with less than sparkling commentating skills (John Harkes and Eric Wynalda) have gone the way of Robespierre and Marat in the era of Fox Soccer and Gol TV. Thank Rupert Murdoch for weekly appearances of English announcers like Ian Darke, Efan Ekoku, and Steve McManaman, who I remember as a lanky winger in Liverpool’s Carlsberg kit with a propensity for taking a crack from anywhere. I can essentially watch English football like an Englishman (except it’s too early for beer) every Saturday and Sunday, with brief interruptions from Kyle Martino (not half bad), Warren (the Gecko) Barton, and Eric Wynalda (still bad). In a sense it’s back to the future, since I cut my teeth watching early Sunday morning BBC feeds of Liverpool matches on WETA in the early ‘80s.

I once had a long discussion about American soccer with a college buddy from Sunderland, and we both agreed that until our games were better analyzed in live commentary, our national teams would continue to suffer from the same tactical and creative anemia that has afflicted them for the period of my 35 or so years as a supporter. A savvy American 10 year old can explain the basics of Tex Winter’s triangle offense but would struggle to define the role of a holding midfielder. Funny, in a way, that our national team’s finest technical performance to date may have been its recent 4-1 defeat to Brazil in a friendly. Things have come a long way since I was plying my trade in the youth soccer systems of Maryland and NoVA. Kids these days can belong to integrated youth setups like SOCA and have posters of Brek Shea next to ones of CR9 on their wall (I had Air Gullit), wake up on Saturday to watch Chelsea play Manchester City, and then head to their own games, played on fields not lined for others sports and not pitted to the point that passing the ball on the ground was more or less a 50/50 proposition. For the first time, U.S.-born members of our men’s national team have never done anything but play professional soccer.

But Euro 2012 has reopened a fresh wound. ESPN is a company that knows how to run a sports website, but their contract to broadcast the UEFA championships has laid bare the fact that they don’t maintain a standing army for television and their choices thus far have been a disaster. Coverage first focused on a studio trio of Michael Ballack, Alexi Lalas, and Bob Ley, but Ley’s performance was so ridiculous that he’s already been replaced by Rebeccah Lowe, a UK-based peroxide blonde who says all the right things. Why did they think Ley, one of their first generation anchors, could moderate discussion of a sport he knows nothing about? I suppose because all he had to do was keep the talk flowing between Ballack and Lalas. Sad for them not to realize that Lalas is an utter idiot and a blowhard, who won’t let Ballack (a Champs League winner, a German captain, one of Pele’s 100 greatest) get a word in edgewise.

Lalas was never a good player. He was an incredible athlete with a cool haircut and a good face who knew enough to keep pushing his chips around the table after the U.S.’s miraculous World Cup performance in 1994. The fact that he ever ended up as a general manager for the MetroStars speaks more to that organization’s ineptitude than anything else. He fired eventual U.S. Men’s National Team Coach Bob Bradley after Bradley told him to stay out of his locker room because he was an idiot.

Two days ago, I watched Lalas get into a whiny argument with Ballack while defending England’s ridiculously conservative approach against France. Ballack, who’s a bit stolid to start with, has more or less totally shut down during their interchanges, which consist mainly of Lalas spouting platitudes with nary a reference to a specific player’s performance or ability.

ESPN’s production team must be writhing in agony as they look on. Their one useful contribution to coverage has been the periodic outtakes with Wigan Athletic manager Roberto Martinez, on site in Poland. But the dissonance between Martinez’s knife-like personnel focused analysis and the studio conversation only accentuates the reality that they haven’t yet figured out how to bridge the gap between heady European-style coverage, which assumes knowledge of the sport, and last-generation American commentary, which explains the game through dumb metaphors. Here’s a hint for ESPN: don’t worry about it. U.S. soccer fans have already moved on. See your website and Fox Soccer’s ratings for proof.

I know I’m getting ranty, but there are high stakes for U.S. soccer and for me as a fan of the world game. You can’t learn a sport by listening to people who haven’t played it or by listening to people who have played it and can’t talk about it. And you can learn a lot from watching games. There’s still time to right the ship, even though we’re probably stuck with listening to Kasey Keller call whole games as if he’s watching from the goal. The tournament hasn’t taken off yet. Italy, Spain, and Germany have looked strongest. Holland, France, and Portugal make up a talented but incoherent second tier. And Russia, at home on artificial turf and comfortable in an easy group, are clear dark horses.

The next three days will separate contenders from pretenders. You can catch Germany vs. Holland at The Paramount Theater at 2:45pm today. To get you excited, I’ll leave you with Euro 2012’s first true moment. On Monday, Andriy Shevchenko, the 35-year-old talisman of host nation Ukraine, scored on two fantastic headers to beat Sweden and outshine Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is definitely the best forward in the tournament besides Karim Benzema when he can be bothered to move around some. Just before the match, Ballack, who played with Sheva at Chelsea, offered heartfelt and fantastic insight into the Ukrainian’s heavily-documented failure in London. “He just didn’t get on with Mourinho. I don’t know why,” after saying what a great teammate, goalscorer, and man he was. That’s what they hired you for Michael. Danke schoen.

Watching the interactions between Shevchenko and his teammates after the match–his goals capped a really strong total effort–you saw a man already regarded as a living legend, playing out the last drama of his career in front of a raucous and adoring crowd in Kiev that has suffered through two totally dark years of national politics. Watching that–and watching Iniesta prove that he’s better than Xavi— is what the European Championships are all about.

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