Sunday’s Argentina/Germany match will be the last World Cup game televised by ESPN until, at minimum, 2026. The Worldwide Leader has come a long way over the years with its soccer coverage. Many, if not a majority, of American soccer viewers are actually disappointed the 2018/2022 tournaments are moving from ESPN to Fox — an upset worthy of Costa Rica winning Group D considering the WWL’s much-maligned coverage by dedicated soccer fans in 2006.
Part of the appeal of ESPN’s coverage in 2014 is its studio work, which feels relaxed and natural — a welcome contrast to much of the network’s hyperbolic talking head-style programming. Given that the World Cup is an “event” compared to a regularly scheduled sports program, ESPN went out and hired a bunch of international ringers such as Michael Ballack, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Gilberto Silva for the month to talk soccer inside its glitzy studio on Rio’s Copacabana beach.
Often pundits/analysts are accused of harboring biases, fairly or unfairly. ESPN made no bones about its World Cup coverage in this regard. Van Nistelrooy routinely wore orange ties on the days the Netherlands played. Studio hosts Bob Ley, Mike Tirico, and Lynsey Hipgrave almost went out of their way, attempting to evoke visceral reactions — positive or negative — from the partisans when their various nations played. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of broadcast. ESPN’s ringers were brought in to give opinions as pundits, rather than report news as a standard journalist. More than that, it would be unfair to the viewers to pretend Ballack wasn’t pulling for Germany during its matches. ESPN and its pundits laid their cards on the table for everyone to see on Brazil and we, as viewers, were mostly better for it.
Television, lest we forget, is the entertainment business and more often than not ESPN’s World Cup studio team delivered over the last month, be it on the main studio set or the smaller, relaxed patio “Last Call” set. If there’s one fair criticism for ESPN, it could have brought in Asian or African-based pundits for its coverage as it did with the European, South and North American teams (Efan Ekoku, born in England, did play for Nigeria, and made some appearances in studio in addition to calling games).
Let’s take a look at how the main ESPN World Cup studio pundits did, remembering that for some involved English is not their native tongue — adding to the degree of difficultly for live television.
Michael Ballack: Two years ago when ESPN flew the former German captain to Bristol for its Euro 2012 studio coverage he felt like a cheap, two-rate James Bond villain mixed with a very broad European, cartoon stereotype sent to central Connecticut specifically to spar with Mr. U-S-A Alexi Lalas. For example:
Four years later, the sparring has been minimal. The pair spoofed their animosity in a car commercial and Lalas even snapped a picture of Ballack’s gleeful grin after Germany’s seventh goal vs. Brazil in the semifinals.
What’s made Ballack a worthwhile pundit, rather than a gimmicky punchline, is honesty. Ballack isn’t there to sugarcoat or provide spin, instead giving his simple honest assessment of the match. When you’ve played (and lost, mind) in both the Champions League and World Cup final you don’t care about stepping on someone’s toes or hurting a professional’s feelings, allowing for blunt commentary. Like many watching at home, Ballack wondered why German coach Jogi Löw would play the world’s best right back — Philipp Lahm — in the midfield, something Löw changed later in the tournament.
Hopefully Ballack will return when ESPN televises Euro 2016 from France. In small doses, he provides almost all of what you want in a sports pundit.
Ruud van Nistelrooy: The former Manchester United goal-scoring legend worked as a bit of a watered down version of Ballack, right down to the permanent five o’clock shadow on his face. The Dutchman’s resumé might be more impressive than Ballack’s in terms of trophies, and he too hasn’t held back with straightforward, cold analysis. Over the last month nothing van Nistelrooy said stood out much — not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not like van Nistelrooy’s aim was to “troll” American viewers in order to make a name for himself or land his next contract.
Ballack actually saved his best barb of the World Cup for van Nistelrooy when one of the studio hosts asked about the Netherlands title hopes. The German coldly quipped, “It’s time to win a title for Holland, huh?” leaving van Nistelrooy without much room for a comeback.
Alexi Lalas: The former American international is a polarizing figure. Critics bemoan him for his use of “rah rah” type clichés when addressing a game, or his over-use of the word “pragmatic” when describing the U.S. National Team. Say what you will about Lalas, but he does seem to “get” television and realizes the entertainment aspect, if his self-deprecating Twitter feed is to be believed. You might not like Lalas or agree with him, but he sticks to his opinions and tries, mostly, to be fair with them.
Lalas, if nothing else, is a good sport and lesser people might have crumbled logging the hours of live television he did over this last month in Brazil.
Gilberto Silva: The Brazilian World Cup winner was often put in a tough spot, as ESPN leaned on him to be its “voice” of the Selecao. Having Silva on-set during Brazil’s humiliating semifinal defeat was a particularly rough spot for the former Arsenal midfielder. Like most of the ESPN international pundit ringers, Silva was more measured, fair and rational than hyperbolic.
Taylor Twellman: When he’s not trying to turn everything into a First Take style argument, Twellman provides thoughtful analysis. Having him on set Wednesday to discuss Javier Mascherano returning to the field following a potential head injury was quite valuable and a stroke of luck for ESPN given Twellman’s advocacy on the much-overlooked issue by FIFA.
Santiago Solari: The deeper Argentina moved into the tournament, the more we saw Solari. Although Argentina — Lionel Messi aside — hasn’t dazzled with its play during the World Cup, Solari remained even-keeled, providing measured analysis. Solari did question Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella’s tactics, but never in a screaming “hot take” sort of way, even when prompted by the hosts, remaining quite calm. Call Solari a very pleasant surprise.
Steve McManaman: For American soccer fans it was a nice little treat to have Macca back in our lives for the World Cup after ESPN lost its rights to the Premier League in 2013 to NBCSN. Although he was primarily an in-game analyst, the Englishman popped up in the studio from time-to-time. McManaman followed the European analyst template, as it were, providing tough, fair analysis without veering into hyperbole or frenzied cliches. His shock — if not utter disgust — calling the Germany 7-1 victory over Brazil hit on the right notes. Macca, like Ballack, seemed to be enjoying himself.
Also? Great hair.
Kasey Keller: Odds are, sooner rather than later Keller will be coaching soccer in America at some level. It’s too bad because the former U.S. goalie is pretty good on television. Yes, he’s prone to the occasional cliché or two, but he’s very plainspoken and calm with his analysis most times. Like many of his European colleagues his resumé speaks for itself, so he doesn’t have to tip-toe around issues or players’ egos.
Efan Ekoku: The former Nigerian international worked mainly on game broadcasts, but dropped in the studio later in the tournament. I was a little too critical about him being overtly negative earlier in the World Cup, but came to appreciate his candor on the ESPN set. Ekoku offered up analysis, not fluff as we’re so often conditioned to hear on American sports television. It would be refreshing if more North American analysts weren’t afraid to be as honest as Ekoku is during game telecasts.
Julie Foudy: Primarily used on the auxiliary, lounge set, Foudy was excellent as always. Unlike previous ESPN soccer endeavors, Foudy wasn’t so much an analysis or pundit, instead used as a field reporter and studio facilitator. Sometimes Foudy is so smooth on television you’d never know she’s one of the most-accomplished players in U.S. Women’s National Team history.
Her feature on Jurgen Klinsmann’s family is worth including:
Roberto Martinez: Saving the best for last? Without gushing too much, Roberto Martinez might be the greatest human being on the planet. Oops. The Everton manager was great during ESPN’s previous Euro and Confederations Cup coverage and only got better during the World Cup, offering measured, insightful commentary be it from a tactical or personnel standpoint. It certainly helped that Martinez is an active manager and familiar with so many of the players involved in the World Cup. In a true TV sports rarity, when Martinez spoke, you actually felt like you might have learned something to appreciate the game better.
Martinez made it look easy, with his level-headed, rational, takes.