Soccer fans in the United States have long had to deal with networks covering matches as if every viewer has no idea how the sport works. That had been changing recently though. As more and more Americans became fans of the sport and followed it regularly there was less and less of a need to pander to the "casual fan." Instead, networks could cover the sport how they covered any other sport. They could be smart, insightful and treat their audience as if they had seen a soccer match before.
Apparently FOX never got that message though, treating Saturday's UEFA Champions League as if every viewer needed explained to them that for each time the ball goes in the net a team gets one point. In truth, the coverage of the match itself was fine. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith were on the call and with two of the best in the business from minutes one to 45 and 45 to 90, FOX was in good hands. The problem came in the 45 minute pre-match show, the halftime show and the post-match show, all of which were so bad that it obscured the in-match coverage.
Things actually started brightly for FOX. They opened with voice-overs from Vinnie Jones and Pau Gasol, both of whom know the sport and were accompanied by dramatic music and incredible visuals of London and the two teams. If nothing else, the opening made it 100% clear that FOX put a lot of effort into their coverage of the world's biggest sporting event of the year.
The problem is that FOX may have cared a little bit too much. Not long into the pre-match show FOX went to a spot with Michael Strahan. While an American football player, Strahan's father was in the U.S. Army and Strahan spent a part of his childhood in Germany. As such, he could have been used valuably to put a recognizable face on the camera and competently discuss the match. No, instead FOX used him to compare football to soccer with things such as "in football we get a penalty for hitting with our helmet, but in soccer they score goals with their heads!"
There were two things that FOX almost couldn't mess up though. One, Lionel Messi is the world's greatest player who can impress even those who don't follow the sport at all. Talking about him is about as easy as it gets. Two, the top 10 goals of the Champions League season. Great tournament, great players, great goals, simple. Amazingly, FOX managed to mess up both.
FOX decided that instead of actually discussing Messi or going over any of his many amazing statistics, they would turn to a taped Landon Donovan discussing the world's best player because...well because. Donovan offered up a lot of generalities, saying Messi is small, quick and the best in the game. Well, isn't that insightful.
Eric Wynalda, a former U.S. international who has played in multiple World Cups, and Brad Friedel, also a U.S. international who has played in World Cups and currently plays in the English Premier League, were the analysts on the pre-match show and neither really got to chime in with anything about Messi, the match's most important player. Why not?
Managing to get a top 10 goals segment wrong takes extraordinary talent though. First of all, the selection of the 10 goals was questionable and choosing Dejan Stankovic's incredible volley from nearly midfield as just the fifth best goal of the tournament was downright blasphemous. That's a matter of opinion though, although few would take the opinion that Stankovic's goal was only the fifth best in the competition.
What isn't a matter of opinion? How about the best part part of a goal is not always the part where the player kicks the ball in the net. Messi's magnificent goal against Real Madrid in the semifinals was picked as the number one goal and it was truly great. The finish itself was fine. He was all alone on the keeper at that point and put it away. Where Messi really opened eyes was in his dribbling to get alone on the keeper. The problem is that FOX cut the highlight of his goal so that none of that was in the highlight. They only showed the last couple touches and finish, not where he danced through one of the world's best teams. As a result the goal looked merely average. A awful disservice to a truly fantastic goal.
When FOX wasn't busy with inane features like Strahan's nonsense and discussing Ryan Giggs' affair, they had themselves a show from inside the stadium. Wynalda and Friedel were the analysts and did a fine job when they got the rare chance to actually discuss the match.
Curt Menefee, who normally works FOX's NFL studio show, played the role of host and right from the start it was clear that he didn't know much about soccer. That was the first and seemingly biggest mark against him, right? Wrong. That's because he said the referee from the match was from Hungaria. He didn't get the country of the Hungarian referee wrong, he completely made up the name of a country.
In the post-match show, Menefee committed arguably the worst error any announcer can make. He had no idea when to be quiet. As Barcelona celebrated and made their way up the stairs to get their medals and trophies, Menefee kept talking. When the team got the trophy, a great moment handed to any TV coverage on a silver platter with the excitement of the team and roar of the crowd doing all of the work, Menefee continued to talk.
While Barcelona was holding up the trophy, Menefee talked about the comeback story of Eric Abidal, the defender who returned from a March 15 diagnosis of a tumor on his liver and subsequent surgery to help Barcelona win the title. It is an incredible feat and story, but when the team is getting the trophy, that's time to be silent and let the moment speak for itself. The Abidal comeback deserved its own feature and focus, but the time for that was in the pre-match show. Instead of the Strahan piece would have done just fine.
FOX cared about the Champions League final. Maybe they cared a little too much. It was a shame to see such an awful production for such an incredible match, but awful it was. All of this came on the heels of ESPN's great World Cup coverage last summer too when they made up the blueprint for how FOX should have covered Saturday's match. Be smart, focus on the match and let your qualified, knowledgeable people do the bulk of the work. Instead, FOX tried to do things their own way and wrote the blueprint on how not to cover a big match, or any match at all for that matter.