Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


MARIO MACHADO AND THE OLYMPIC SOCCER TOURNAMENT THAT DIDN’T EXIST

Long-time television personality and soccer champion Mario Machado has died of complications of pneumonia at a West Hills, CA, convalescent facility.  He was 78.

Born in Shanghai to a Portuguese father and Chinese-Portuguese mother, Machado began his broadcast career at KHJ in Los Angeles as a television news reporter, a first for a Chinese-American.  He went on to serve as reporter, host and producer for a number of shows on TV and radio, winning eight Emmys in the process.  He also appeared in several motion pictures, usually as a new anchor or reporter, including “Brian’s Song,” “Rocky III,” “Scarface,” “Robocop,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and “Oh, God!”

A father of four, Machado had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.  [May 4]

(Personal) Comment:  When it came to soccer, Mario Machado was a man ahead of his time.  Today, he’d probably be a studio host or leading play-by-play man on Fox Soccer Channel, beIN Sport, GolTV or NBCSP, and would be getting high marks for his knowledge of and passion for the game, all delivered in that smooth baritone.

Instead, he came along in the late 1960s–unfortunate for him but fortunate for the smattering of soccer fans around the U.S. starved for any coverage of the game.  A former college player who continued to play well into middle age, Machado was probably best known to audiences here as the host of “Star Soccer,” a weekly English League highlights show–back when there was no Man U or Chelsea glamour–on the Public Broadcasting System for six years, and he was play-by-play man for CBS’s telecasts of the North American Soccer League.  He briefly served as commissioner of the ill-fated American Soccer League in the 1980s, published Soccer Corner magazine from 1976 to 1986 and, as a founding member of the American Youth Soccer Organization, successfully pushed for AYSO to allow girls to play.

I met Machado early in 1984.  He had been named ABC’s play-by-play man for its coverage of the Los Angeles Olympic soccer tournament, and he needed a researcher.  The job was particularly challenging for three reasons.  First, Olympic soccer was not very important in many countries, and thus not very important to the national soccer federations that were the source of team information.  After all, the players were supposedly amateurs–players not good enough to have turned professional.  It didn’t help that the best mode of international communication wasn’t e-mail but the telex machine (ask your grandfather about that).  Second, it was unknown whether the countries that usually won the medals–communist bloc nations and their state-supported “amateurs”–would play tit for tat and boycott Los Angeles ’84 the way a U.S.-led coalition had sat out Moscow ’80.  And third, it was uncertain what kind of teams the 16 finalists–whoever they were–would send here.  The lead-up to the tournament was rife with rumors that FIFA would, for the first time, allow professionals to play in the Olympics, and sure enough, with weeks to go before kickoff, it was announced that all were welcome except players from Europe and South America who had World Cup experience.  For their part, the host Americans, who had been preparing a proper all-amateur team for more than a year, dumped the whole lot–with the exception of UCLA’s Jeff Hooker and Columbia’s Amr Aly–and replaced them with players from the NASL.  And in the end, the communist qualifiers, save eventual bronze medalist Yugoslavia, dropped out.

As a result, up until Olympic soccer kicked off July 29, I spoon-fed Machado what I could.  When it came to finalists like Qatar, Iraq and Morocco, the amount of advance information was pitiful.  Some of the powerful Western nations, like Italy and West Germany, weren’t very forthcoming, either.  Nevertheless, Machado slogged on.  He called all 32 matches for ABC, in-person or via monitor (matches were played in Annapolis, MD; Palo Alto, CA; Harvard University in Boston and Pasadena’s Rose Bowl).  That would be, with overtime, 2,910 minutes, but Machado’s total air time on ABC amounted to about 20 minutes–20 damn minutes–during his 14-day stint, culminating with France’s 2-0 victory over Brazil in the Rose Bowl final.

ABC had obviously concluded that soccer was a TV buzz kill.  Maybe, in 1984, ABC Sports supremo Roone Arledge was right.  However, with the Los Angeles Olympic soccer tournament drawing an average of 44,548 a match, he helped suppress one of the major stories of the L.A. Games.  The country that apparently didn’t like soccer not only turned out 101,799-strong for the gold medal game but 100,374 for the third-place game.  Soccer, with its mishmash of amateurs, semipros and marginal professionals (with the possible exception of Brazil captain Dunga, Italy’s Vierchowod and a handful of others), had easily out-drawn the Olympics’ signature event, track and field.

Afterwards, Machado expressed no disappointment, at least not to me, over what amounted to what could be described as TV sportscasting’s version of more than 48 hours of shadow boxing.  He was a consummate professional, and as a soccer fan he probably reveled in that total gate of 1,425,541.

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FOX’S MYSTERIOUS GAMBLE

Manchester United escaped the Santiago Bernabeu with a precious away goal as it battled Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in the opening leg of the UEFA Champions League’s round of 16.

Midfielder Danny Welbeck put United ahead in the 20th minute against the run of play, heading home a corner kick by striker Wayne Rooney.  Ten minutes later, forward Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for the Spanish giants with a powerful header off a cross by winger Angel Di Maria.  Ronaldo, in a nod to his six stellar years with the English club, did not celebrate his goal.

The two sides meet in the second leg March 5 at Old Trafford.  [February 13]

Comment:  A minor epic, but what might be the most notable aspect of the match for American viewers was that it marked the Fox Soccer Channel debut of play-by-play man Gus Johnson–notable because Johnson, relatively unknown among soccer fans, has been anointed by Fox Sports President Eric Shanks as the network’s No. 1 soccer announcer.  That means he will be the man at the microphone for Fox’s telecasts of the English FA Cup final and UEFA Champions League final in May, and much, much more.  Like … the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Johnson, 45, cut his broadcasting teeth calling basketball, football, hockey and boxing for, among others, ESPN, CBS and the Madison Square Garden Network.  His on-air soccer experience consists mainly of radio broadcasts of San Jose Earthquake road games last year, which served as a warm-up for his Fox gig.  Apparently, Shanks’ grand experiment is a counterpunch to ESPN’s all-Brits, all-the-time coverage of the 2010 World Cup.  He wants someone speaking American English when it covers Russia ’18, and like ESPN three years ago, he’s thumbed his nose at the country’s experienced soccer play-by-play men.

What was heard during the Real Madrid-Manchester United telecast was not surprising.  Johnson, who’s tried to make up for lost time by playing in pick-up soccer games near his New York home, simply showed no feel for the sport.  Nice voice, seemingly well-prepared with plenty of factoids to share, but there was no comfort level or ready insight that comes with a lifetime of exposure to soccer.  It forced color commentator Warren Barton to repeatedly deal with loose ends and point out subtleties that would ordinarily have been taken care of smoothly by an experienced play-by-play man.  Over two hours, Barton, who usually looks like he’s just learned that his daughter has run off with a motorcycle gang, maintained his composure despite being the hardest working man in the Fox booth.  Low point:  With United sweating out its gritty draw on the road, Johnson asked Barton if Sir Alex Ferguson would be pleased with the result.

Best of luck to Johnson, for the sake of America’s soccer TV audience.  Somehow, over the next five years he will have to make himself smarter and more perceptive than his viewers, a majority of whom have been playing, coaching and/or officiating the game much of their lives.  At the moment, the thinking behind Shanks’ needless gambit remains a mystery.