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"In any language, the whole world is united by a ball." --- Steve Amoia, World Football Commentaries

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Discussion between Grant Wahl and Dan Leo: Part 2: "(They) tend to shy away from getting too in-depth when discussing the intricacies of the sport."

Image courtesy

of Sports Illustrated.

Grant Wahl
is a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated where he covers college and professional basketball, along with international soccer. He has been with the venerable magazine since 1996, and has written 31 cover stories, along with over 200 featured articles.

Image courtesy of Amazon.com
and Crown Books.

A few months ago, he published his first book, "The Beckham Experiment," with Crown Books. It was a New York Times best seller.

Dan Leo is a freelance writer from Miami, Florida. He has written about American and international soccer for Soccerlens and World Football Commentaries.

Dan Leo Archive

Dan and Grant will discuss the following topics:
  • The perspective of an American soccer journalist versus someone who grew up in Eastern Europe
  • Comparing mainstream US sports commentary versus American soccer announcers
  • Conflicting views about the USSF (United States Soccer Federation)
  • Foreign versus domestic national team managers for the American project
  • Analysis about Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Ruud Gullit, and Jürgen Klinsmann
A Discussion between Grant Wahl and Dan Leo

Grant, welcome to World Football Commentaries. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you. Let's get started.

A global soccer journalist is likely to have been immersed in the game since birth. An American soccer journalist, to the contrary, is far more likely to grow up with other sports.

What perspective does one gain from knowing the finer points of American football or basketball and what bits of knowledge are missing to a relative newcomer?

Grant Wahl

Like a lot of American kids, I actually did grow up with soccer, but I grew up playing and not so much watching the professional game. When you're a 10-year-old soccer player in America, you can get a handle on the offside rule, but it's harder to get immersed in the tactics and culture of the pro game in the way you might be in England or Argentina. I've tried to make up for that over the past 10 to 15 years since I became a soccer journalist.

I don't think there is a lot of overlap between soccer and American football, but I do think there is between soccer and basketball (the other sport I cover for SI). The passing, the creativity, the flow, the triangles: Soccer and basketball have many similarities, which I think is why you often find that fans of one sport also follow the other. I think it's also why soccer and basketball are the world's two most popular sports. I admit that my weak spot in my soccer journalism (and U.S. soccer journalism in general) is writing about tactics and strategy. Realizing that, I have been trying to make up for it by learning as much as possible. There are many ways to do that. I'm currently reading the book "Inverting the Pyramid" by Jonathan Wilson. It's about the history of soccer tactics.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
grew up playing soccer in Italy. As a child,
he supported AC Milan. He actively supports FC Barcelona
and the Los Angeles Sol.

"She (Marta) plays with such a passion, such a love for the game, so much creativity, I just find myself being glued to the TV set watching her play."

Mr. Bryant was quoted in 2009 at the presentation news conference of Marta Vieira da Silva.

Dan Leo

I grew up on European and International soccer but I assert that most kids worldwide are still clueless on the intricacies of WM vs. 4-2-4 despite having an outstanding grasp of the fundamentals - basic movement, ball trapping, shooting, etc. that comes from playing thousands of hours of pick-up ball before adulthood. In the olden days, televised contests had a single commentator who rarely delved into deep tactics while talking to his audience. Those discussions were reserved for specific magazines with a very limited circulations for the most dedicated fans. Where I was from, the half-time analysis did not exist and a cartoon or a short news feature was shown in between the action on the field.

In general, American TV coverage with its slew of ex-coaches, super slo-mo replays and telestrators has always been far ahead of its competition. After coming to the US, I was stunned by the concept of a pre-game show (to say nothing of Phyllis George) and the professionalism devoted to the event. Say what you will about the purely entertainment value of the John Maddens, Joe Garagiolas, Ken Venturis and Al McGuires, their commentaries were priceless to a newcomer. They were my teachers.

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement

Legendary coach and commentator,
John Madden.

And, having watched far too many Super Bowls and Final Fours, what I quickly noticed was how strong the emphasis was on the individual match-ups in basketball and football, where almost every conceivable variable is addressed to a minute detail. In other words, any weak attribute - be it lack of size, speed or an outside shot - is the target of the game day's scheme. But Madden and McGuire made the complex easy and were able to translate their love for their sports onto others.

Is there a similar fusion of knowledge and personality in the US? Is one needed?

Grant Wahl

You present an interesting discussion. Is your question at the end specifically about U.S. soccer? I would say that U.S. soccer is still looking for a television commentator who can combine a deep knowledge of the sport's intricacies with a big personality that can be picked up by viewers. The people who have that personality (Alexi Lalas, Ray Hudson) tend to shy away from getting too in-depth when discussing the intricacies of the sport itself. Maybe that will change in the future.

You do make a good point that soccer coverage outside the U.S. may not get into hardcore tactical discussions for kids, but I do get the sense that it happens more in some countries than in others. I think it could be increased a bit here in the U.S. as well.

World Series of Football - Samsung Bluewings v Tigres

Alexi Lalas is one of the most
recognized faces in American
soccer. He was the first American
to play in the Italian Serie A with
Padova in 1994, and was capped
96 times for the USA.
"If I were a manager in Italy, I would definitely bring a bunch of Americans over.
They’re cheap, they work hard and they learn very quickly.
Mr. Lalas was quoted during an interview with Steve Amoia in 2006.

Dan Leo

You were correct in that a mythical figure I had in mind was someone who could be both an ambassador of the game and its ombudsman; someone who could praise and criticize without an ulterior motive, a hint of self-promotion or a fear for his job due to the pressure from the top. Which segues into the USSF as the governing body of soccer in this country.

As someone who had long term contacts with the top hierarchy of this organization, what can you infer about its goals and ambitions? A corporate bureaucracy tends to maintain a status quo and hire people indebted to it. Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Sigi Schmid, Thomas Rongen, et al appear to be such types. An outsider may entail greater risks while presenting an opportunity for greater rewards but inert bodies have trouble gaining momentum.

Is the USSF becoming an end game onto itself or is it capable of stepping out of its comfort zone?

Grant Wahl will respond in the third installment.

Editor's Note

I would like to thank Grant and Dan for this enlightening discussion.

I would also like to thank Caroline Sill of Crown Books for her kind assistance.

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