What Makes the Perfect Commentator?

Growing up, my mom did not like my dad to sit around and watch sports. The poor man rarely got any peace or television time in our house. And that is why I found myself sometimes sitting in his truck with him listening to the baseball World Series. The commentator brought the game to life, describing the plays and giving stats and information that were relevant to what was happening. I didn't even need to see the game to know what was going on and to be able to feel the intensity and excitement, because his words, voice, and inflections provided all of that for me. I have actually never been able to watch baseball since because those commentators were actually more exciting than the game itself. 

The legendary Kenneth Wolstenholme, who was later the voice of Serie A on Channel 4

Every sport has its commentators who are legends, and in football, especially, the ones who are the most well known have special talents or gimmicks that make them stand out in the crowd. Take the master of imagery, hyperbole and wordsmithery, Ray Hudson. Here in the United States, everyone knows when he is calling a match, because his commentary is often more entertaining than the game. Even if you don't understand Italian, listening to Mauro Suma's commentary for Milan can help you enjoy the passion of the game, even when you can't watch it (his commentary can be heard on the Milan app for most every game.)

It was actually a Brazilian radio commentator, Rebello Júnior, in the 1940's who invented the elongated "Goooooooooooool" to indicate when someone had scored. This tradition continues today in Spanish language commentary here in North America, where Andrés Cantor is most famous for pushing the boundaries of both sound and oxygen capacity. This type of unique audio trick can make a commentator stand out from the crowd, and perhaps give a certain level of enjoyment to fans. On the flip side, these tricks are more likely to detract from the football than to enhance a viewer's experience of a match. So what makes the perfect commentator?

The always entertaining Ray Hudson

Here in the United States, there is a tendency in all sports to talk casually while a game is going. Awkward pop culture references, random non-sports conversations, borderline racism, and so many other horrible things pepper what should just be calling the game. The bar is especially low for football commentary. People who once attended a football match or perhaps played in AYSO as a child are allowed to spew their ignorance to the masses. The technical knowledge and skill level of the commentators here is often lower than the footballing abilities of the US Men's National Team in comparison with the rest of the world, and we all know how low that bar is. Not ironically, some of the women who represented the far more successful US Women's National Team are capable of some no-nonsense, halfway decent commentary, but they probably get paid less to do a much better job, just like when they were players.

English language commentary for Serie A throughout the world tends to be very poor. So many British commentators utilize their 90 minutes of fame to name drop and tell stories about their Championship bench careers from forty years ago, gossip or speculate about players, rumors, and their intentions instead of describing the actual football on screen, or spend so much time vomiting nonsense about referee calls, while it remains incredibly clear that they have never even read the Laws of the Game. 

Andres Cantor... Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool!!!

Of course,  apparently because there are so few English speakers who know that "football" actually refers to a game played with the feet, British commentators spend a ridiculous amount of air time criticizing, placing moral judgments upon, and showing general ignorance about Italian football. Imagine how painful it is, living here in Los Angeles, and waking up at 3:30am for a Milan match, only to hear some bloke named Thom, who played for Swindon Town in the 1970's, reminiscing about his pal George who once sat on the bench for a season at Crystal Palace. Guys like Thom still think Serie A is a defensive league, pronounce all of the players names however the hell they want to, and take any opportunity to accuse an Italian player of diving or cheating. It's brutal, but if I want to watch Milan, it's listening to this nonsense or watching the game on mute.

The competency of commentators has increased in importance since COVID-19 created empty stadiums. Without the passion of the fans, commentators' words and voices provide the viewer with the best emotional indication of how the game is going. Their ability to call a game well and communicate effectively with words, inflections, volume, and the intensity of what is happening can impact viewers' experiences of the game as much or more as the game itself. The skills of knowing what is going on, who the players are, and the ability to interpret ref calls correctly is only part of the job. The ability to express all of that to the audience live is a very special skill that very few actually have.

She's a 2 time World Cup winner, and one of the few fairly competent commentators

More importantly, however, their opinions influence the opinions of millions, especially when it comes to those "crooked" Italian referee calls. Commentators have the power to educate and offer intelligent insights on the calls, or to stir up controversy, cause confusion, and create a barrage of ignorance that is comparable to a Category 5 hurricane on social media. Most English commentators choose the latter, unfortunately, which keeps English speaking fans of Serie A completely referee illiterate and even deluded as to what is actually happening in the matches. The Lega Serie A should not only worry more about television rights, but also about the competency of those who call the games for those broadcasting companies, because commentators have a lot of power when it comes to fans' views of the Italian league, particularly the referees.

I digress, though. Having mentioned many of the failings of the average English speaking Serie A commentator, I promised to discuss what makes the perfect commentator. Obviously, the person must know the beautiful game well and be able to fluently discuss it live and in real time. There is a lot of common football "lingo" that helps to gain credibility, and when covering a league with a foreign tongue, it is almost necessary to also be fluent in that language and footballing customs, or at the very least the football terms, culture, and history. The more fluent a commentator is in Serie A and football in general, the better our experience and knowledge will be as fans.

Patrick Kendrick, multilingual and incredibly talented Serie A English commentator

Most fans expect at the very least a level of expertise in being able to pronounce players' names correctly, which has become more challenging as the game has become so global. Yes, a basic assumption about a job in which you are going to be paid to talk about 22 players for 90 minutes is to spend a few minutes learning how to say those players' names correctly. A true professional learns as much as they can, prepares well for every match, and is able to give 90 minutes of clear, competent commentary, including calling the plays, intelligently discussing the players and their performances, and perhaps offering interesting stats or information that enhances the discussion, but never detracts.

The perfect commentator can have a sense of humor or offer educated opinions, but should do so without calling unnecessary attention to themselves or distracting the viewer or listener from the game itself. A great commentator provides an amazing soundtrack to the game, much like a musical soundtrack enhances the movie experience, without being consciously noticeable or distracting from the football. 

Mauro Suma, the voice of Milan, the passion translates beyond Italian

That Nirvana of sporting language, the utopia of football speak is so very difficult to achieve. Fans, podcasters, and other content producers try their best to emulate these incredible skills, but most people, including most professionals, fall very short of this ideal. Which is a shame, because Serie A is the best league in the world, and deserves to have commentary that is also the best in the world.

The best commentators have incredible knowledge of Serie A, the teams, the players, and culture. They display excellent pronunciation of names and attention to detail. That is all so very refreshing. An unparalleled footballing knowledge is key, as is the near perfect knowledge of and application of the rules, referees, and VAR, and the ability to communicate all of this in a very neutral way, no matter who is playing. 

Empty stadiums call for better commentators

Great commentary shows both an obvious passion for the game and all aspects of it, but also having professionalism and respect for all of the stakeholders involved. To be able to offer clarity when others confuse, and provide that perfect soundtrack of emotion and dynamics that matches what is happening on the pitch with perfection is the ultimate. All of this without distracting or stealing the spotlight for themself, but rather creating a legacy of aptly telling the story of the game.

The ideal football commentator creates the perfect background for the art that is a football match. Yet it is somewhat of a thankless job. Living every child's dream, however, of having a front row seat to call live football matches is probably some consolation. The job requires such specific skills, skills that so few master. The perfect commentator brings a game to life and adds to the enjoyment of the beautiful game. The only thing better than the perfect Milan game is the perfect Milan game that is called by the perfect football commentator.

This post inspired by the music of Blondie's "Call Me"

What Makes the Perfect Commentator? What Makes the Perfect Commentator? Reviewed by Elaine on 11:58 PM Rating: 5
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