India's football commentary is terrible: This is why it needs to get better

For far too long we've failed to address the elephant in the room that is the second-rate commentary offered by pseudo experts in Indian football. The common denominator among the recently concluded I-League, the ongoing World Cup Qualifiers, and pretty much any other footballing event televised in India is the mediocre standard of commentary the fans have to endure.

Often characterized by a poor command of the language which impairs the commentators’ ability to articulate properly, the tendency to load every statement with unnecessary hyperbole, and the lack of knowledge of or insight into the game, football commentary in India may easily be described as repulsive.

Consider Thursday’s game between India and Oman (or Omen, as the commentator repeatedly called it) which had former footballer Noel Wilson and journalist Suman Chakravorty as commentators.

 Indias football commentary is terrible: This is why it needs to get better

The importance of good commentary in football is understated by many. Getty Images

Generally, the failure to correctly identify players has plagued the football commentary scene in India for a long time. So it was hardly surprising to note the commentators occasionally struggle with some of the Omani players’ names.

More specifically, there were instances during the game where their weak analytical skills were embarrassingly compromised. For example, the reaction to Sunil Chhetri’s left-foot curler from the edge of the area was, “He himself thought let me have a shot at goal!” which is not very different from how a 13 year-old would describe it. Contrast this with the analysis of Messi’s dream goal versus Getafe, “There was plenty of intention, he started off at the halfway line, he’s had to get past one defender, he’s had to nutmeg another; and he still has a long way to go. And his quick feet, and his balance, and his composure — just superb. That’s one of the best goals I’ve seen here in the Nou Camp.”

There was another moment shortly after India conceded the second goal, when Oman’s Al Muqbali appeared to have been unfairly brought down by Rino Anto. The immediate response to this was, “Is it another penalty? Yes it is!” before he realized the referee had in fact booked Al Muqbali for diving. He then tracked back on his initial comment rather awkwardly, “Oh no he’s been booked for diving.” That’s not all — the replays clearly showed there was enough in the challenge to make any reasonable person question the decision; instead, they chose to blindly agree with the referee.

What completely floored me, though, was their ignorance of the handball rule, the one essential feature of football that sets it apart from any other team sport. When asked for his opinion on whether a foul given against Sunil Chhetri for handball was justified, the co-commentator — a former Indian national team player, no less — confidently asserted that “a handball is a handball” regardless of intention. Meanwhile, Rule 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game clearly states that “a free-kick will be awarded if a player handles the ball deliberately.”

At this point I was seriously contemplating turning the television off (over something as trivial as commentary). It’s not supposed to be so difficult for fans. An old saying about football referees (which I believe also holds true for commentators) is that the very best are the ones you don’t notice during the game. Similarly, the commentary is not supposed to intrude upon or adversely affect one’s experience of watching the game; rather, it should enhance it. This is in line with Richie Benaud’s mantra, “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up.”

The importance of good commentary in football is understated by many. The rise of football to become the world’s most popular sport means that the closest millions of football lovers can get to any stadium is through their televisions. The role of the commentator, therefore, is to try and reduce the distance between the stadium and the fans tuning into the game at their homes. Yet, the most common “solution” that people come up with when I criticize bad commentary is “Just mute the audio.”

According to this article on the NPR website, what we see on our televisions is a combination of three separate experiences – the event as it takes place at the stadium, its projection on our television screens through the various cameras, and the final broadcast, which includes commentary. It argues that the ‘commentary’ part of this process is a separate portrayal of reality. It’s the commentary that the fans ultimately absorb, and that which serves as our window to the game.

Indian football is currently going through a major transition, making it extremely important to retain existing consumers and also to create new ones. The broadcasters have an important role to play in this by providing their viewers with a high quality viewing experience, which in the context of football includes selecting the best commentators available.

This requires adequate quality control procedures that are designed to meet the high standards demanded by the viewers. It is also about time that the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the organization responsible for the development of football in India, realises that the Indian football fans represent a knowledgeable demographic, and that selling them the product in its current form borders on insulting their intelligence.

It is, therefore, in the interests of the AIFF to participate in the selection process by assuming a supervisory role and ensuring that individuals boasting an encyclopedic understanding of football, coupled with other attributes including sound analytical and linguistic skills, confidence, etc. are preferred over others.

Star Sports successfully managed to rope in seasoned English commentator John Helm (who also commentated on the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil), to commentate on the first edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) last year. Current broadcasters could pair experienced foreign commentators with an Indian to balance the equation — this will also help Indians develop as football commentators.

While commentary is not an easy art to master, it's difficult to entertain the idea that the Indian commentators are putting in any serious effort to improving themselves. Some of the luminaries of present day football commentary like Martin Tyler and Peter Drury aren’t exactly young, which evidences the vitality of the “experience” factor in becoming successful in this field. But, you don’t become the best simply by performing at the same level for a number of years – you must aim at progress.

Clive Tyldesley, who is still remembered for his “Manchester United have reached the promised land” comment after the Red Devils’ incredible Champions League triumph in 1999, believes it is absolutely necessary for every commentator to want to get better. “And that means”, he writes, “listening back to your work with an ultra-critical ear, listening to your peers and your critics and trying to polish and refine your style and approach continually.”

There is no shortage of options (full fledged courses on commentary offered by reputed institutions like the BBC, for example) that amateur commentators can avail themselves of in order to ensure constant improvement. Quality commentary is an integral part of the fan experience, and cannot (and must not) be replaced with anything less. So we can add this aspect of Indian football to the growing list of areas that need upgrading.

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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2015 14:41:02 IST