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Fox's Champions League coverage, reviewed

Dirty Tackle

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Yesterday's Champions League final on Fox marked the first time that an American broadcast network has aired the climactic match of European Football's Premier Club Competition. It was thus European football's premier chance to sell Heineken to the American electorate, and considering the stakes involved, it's probably no surprise that the Fox broadcast team took a large view of its mission. Before the first commercial break had even crept into view, the studio crew — made up of Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, aggro dufus Eric Wynalda, and NFL fish-out-of-water Curt Menefee — had all endorsed the proposition that the Champions League is bigger than the World Cup. "I told you guys that the best sports atmosphere I've ever been a part of was Germany in '06," Menefee enthused. "This has already blown that away." Everyone nodded. Then Fox cut dutifully to Nike's new ad for the World Cup.

I'm going to spend some of this post complaining about the relatively minor things Fox got wrong, so I want to make it clear at the outset that they got some overwhelmingly more important things right. They showed the match at all; they showed it on Fox, rather than FSC, F/X, Fox Kids, Fox Sports Rocky Mountain Foothills, or the Game Show Network; they showed it in HD; and they used announcers from the international TV feed rather than shoehorning in supbar American soccer commentators or clueless American baseball commentators and letting them pretend they knew what an adverb or a corner kick was, respectively.

This last point, especially, was huge. After years of being tortured by the wee shenanigans of Tommy Smyth, American soccer fans are at last free to associate the Champions League with something other than the age of bulging onion bags. Martin Tyler and Andy Gray, total pros both, called a fine match. Andy Gray is one of those announcers who provoke hysterical loathing among a certain segment of sports fans. Personally, I've always liked the freewheeling quality of his bullheadedness. And then there's also the fact that he doesn't seem to maintain his accent by gargling with emerald grounds.

Possibly to offset the pervading Britishness of its match announcers, Fox ditched its usual FSC halftime guys in favor of an all-American studio crew, and this was where things got dicey. I'm not un-receptive to the idea that Americans watching soccer on American TV would prefer American match analysts. At the moment, however, there are a few things the British are just better at, like identifying regional accents and dying in Harry Potter movies. Menefee, Wynalda, and Arena had no chemistry --- it wasn't clear that they'd actually been introduced --- and had nothing to say about the match. When they were on, they struggled to fill the gaps between commercial breaks. The gaps lasted an average of around nine seconds. It was an impressive feat of awkwardness.

Menefee is a genial enough NFL host, and it's possible that he's really the hardcore soccer fan Fox claims him to be, so let's say he was thrown off by the set, a spartan sliver of wires and folding chairs enfolded in a panoramic view of the Bernabeu. In the same way that some writers can only work in coffee shops, you might, if you hosted Fox NFL Sunday long enough, find it hard to think without lasers and F-16s. Menefee got some at least semi-basic stuff at least semi-wrong; using Diego Milito in an argument about why Argentina are favorites to win the World Cup isn't exactly insane, but it does suggest that you haven't been paying attention. He also, maybe forgivably, evinced a touch of cultural anxiety, as in the following score check: "It's one [hesitant pause] nothing, as we say in this country."

Bruce Arena may be a good coach and (for all I know) a decent human being, but he's not a TV guy, and it showed. When he spoke, which was not often, he either sounded like he had painfully tingling lips ("Fwah the fwah fwah, fwash fwash"), or said things like, "There's a fine line between winning and losing, and Inter walked that line a heck of a lot better than Bayern Munich." Wynalda did his usual angry-dude routine and confined his analysis to insisting, in more and more unhinged terms, that Jose Mourinho is special.

Well, Jose Mourinho is special, and on the centrality of that point, the studio crew and the match announcers agreed. Still, if Fox intends to keep giving the Champions League the full network treatment — and God, let's hope they do — it would be nice if they'd assemble a halftime team that didn't look like a production-meeting compromise made by people who don't follow the sport. Eric Wynalda...didn't I see him on ESPN once? The idea that Americans will only warm to the game if they're eased into it by familiar announcers has never made any sense. (Dave O'Brien, a nation turns its lonely eyes from you.) American sports fans, like all sports fans, really just want to hear people who know what they're talking about.

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