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America’s Bad Calls

Like any true postmodern patriot, I not only want my country to do good, I want it to look good. I may be Taoist in much of my own self-conception, but not when it comes to soccer. Winning isn’t enough; I want the USA to be acclaimed. And yet, as we witnessed yesterday, one man can make a massive, damaging difference when it comes to our gaining acceptance into the highest ranks. That man is John Harkes.

Now, to be fair, John Harkes is not the only sports announcer to resort to clichés, repeat those clichés, clumsily try to invent new clichés, etc. And his fellow American Alexi Lalas has been giving him some stiff competition in the race to the bottom. Lalas is a blowhard, nerdy in all the wrong ways: awkward and arrogant, but with shockingly unsophisticated opinions. But he’s not calling the matches, and I almost (note: “almost”) feel sorry for him as he sits at the desk with true soccer greats to his left, reminders that with regard to the beautiful game he is at most a footnote in a footnote, no matter what he says. Harkes is the more damaging. He has yet to reveal a single atom of wisdom. When not talking about his own Cup experiences, he talks in the bland language of office motivational posters. He tells us what the American team should be doing without any specificity or detail.

Now, to be fair, Harkes was a fine player, and a crucial one when he played for the United States. But his inability to function as a good color commentator actually explains some of the reasons why soccer has struggled in America. To millions of Americans, soccer is “boring” because “nothing” happens. As a result, our soccer announcers desperately fill the air with mindless pontification, terrified of dead air. Harkes would be a hundred times better if he was content to stop and think. Well, maybe not a hundred times, but less would be less of a bad thing.

I’m fine with Harkes’s biases excepting his bias for the dull. Partisanship is not a bad thing. Steve McManaman makes no secret of his bias, and yet his analysis is sharp and spot on. His diagnosis of what was wrong with England—their tendency to drift backward instead of forward, their negativity and fear—yesterday was clear and wise. (Lalas merely declared, “They’re not that good!” Dude, why not just exclaim, “They suck!” and throw a pretend punch at the camera?) Harkes is a different kind of partisan: not the fanatic, but the toady. In each Harkes cliché is the echo of an uncreative manager at halftime. Indeed, you can see why he could captain a team: He must have been the biggest suck up in the locker room. He’s a near perfect reflector of pedestrian exhortation: Coach said, “We’ve got to attack!”—Harkes says, “They’ve got to attack.” Coach said, “You have to win the ball!”—Harkes says, “They have to win the ball.” And on and on. This is probably how it went with Bruce Arena and Steve Sampson: Coach says X, so I say X to the guys, and coach likes me more because I must think he’s a genius.

Again, props to Harkes as a player. He was very good, and had too few teammates worth the while. But someone needs to shift him out of the commentator chair. He’s too shallow, too one-dimensional, and too in love with himself. The guy was a pioneer, and that counts for something. But neither John Harkes nor his former teammates did so so much to earn respect beyond being first on the modern stage. (And in this case, Lalas is twice as bad as Harkes.)

The reason why this matters, and why Harkes’s presence damages American soccer, is that sports fans have a good sixth sense of when broadcasters are forcing it. If a game—pick your sport—is dull, and an announcer is going on and on and on, vomiting exclamation points and superlatives, the contrast between the seen and heard is potent. I’d argue that the single most important contributor to America’s growing soccer culture is Fox Soccer Channel. If you are not currently a soccer fan, one of those millions of Americans who do not see the point, commentary that reveals that what seems simple is not, that behind what seems like improvisation are plays and formations and legends and creation myths, that this game which seems so simple is deep as the ocean—that’s the sort of thing that can suck people in. Think about what John Madden did when he moved to the broadcast booth. I always thought Madden was overrated, and became close to parody as he got older, but he did change the way many football fans understood the deep game. You could say something similar about Tim McCarver. What a shame that we haven’t yet found the color man who knows when to keep quiet, and when to reveal the secret codes. John Harkes has a great smile. He might be very good as a play-by-play announcer, but that should be it. During yesterday’s game, Harkes stated that a lot of American fans still believed their team could win—insight he had learned while eavesdropping in the restroom during halftime. Such is the level of analysis he brings to the booth. I can hear someone flushing.