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.



AMERICAN CAESAR

Giorgio Chinaglia, the fiery Italian who scored the goals that powered the New York Cosmos to four North American Soccer League titles during the league’s glory days, died at his Naples, FL, home of complications from a heart attack.  He was 69.

After leading Lazio to its first Serie A title and playing for Italy in the 1974 World Cup–where he infamously flipped off coach Ferruccio Valcareggi while being substituted during the opener against Haiti–Chinaglia was signed in 1976 by the Cosmos, who sought a sure-fire goalscorer to pair with Pele.

While the Cosmos got about $20 million’s worth of publicity from the $5 million signing of Pele the previous year, Chinaglia proved to be a bargain when it came to production on the field.  He scored 193 goals in 213 regular-season games before he retired after the league’s second-to-last season in 1983.  That was an NASL record, as were his 49 playoff goals.  Seven of those came in an outrageous 8-1 humiliation of the Tulsa Roughnecks in 1980 as he set post-season records for goals in a playoff game and goals in a single post-season, 19.  He also holds the records for most goals in a season, 34 in 30 games, in 1978, and total points, 79, set that same year, thanks to his 11 assists.

Elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2000, Chinaglia later found himself an exile in his adopted country after a group he was involved with was accused by Italian authorities of price-fixing in the attempted purchase of his former club, Lazio.   [April 1]

Comment:   There are soccer fans here who remember Chinaglia as the American Caesar.  With his outsized ego,  Chinaglia was made for New York, the swingin’ ’70s and the Cosmos, who could number among their followers Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger.   He marked his arrival by saying of Pele, who showed up in 1976 late and out of shape, “He’s just another player I’ll have to carry until he gets fit.”  He also had the good sense to become close with Warner Communications supremo Steve Ross, the Cosmos’ part-owner and biggest fan.  More important, Chinaglia backed up his bluster by becoming the NASL’s greatest scoring machine.  A classic poacher,  some of his goals were pretty, some not so.  His final notable goal was typical:   In San Diego, he bundled the ball into the goal with his thigh during a goalmouth scramble to give New York a 1-0 victory over the (original) Seattle Sounders in a forgettable Soccer Bowl ’82.

What soccer fans of all ages here will remember is the Giorgio Chinaglia whom ABC teamed with former U.S. star Eric Wynalda as in-studio commentators during its coverage of the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan.  Many of those games aired in America during the wee hours, but the Giorgio-Waldo Show proved much more potent than black coffee in keeping viewers awake with their running game of thrust and parry.  Doing most of the thrusting was Wynalda, who played gleeful, smart-alecky high school student to the completely humorless but unflappable social studies teacher Chinaglia, and the result was classic TV.  The two parted ways as Chinaglia went on to host a satellite radio show while Wynalda, paired with Julie Foudy for the ’06 World Cup, became a bit more buttoned down in recent years as studio host for Fox Soccer Channel.  There hasn’t been an on-air duo like Waldo-Chinaglia, and we soccer viewers are the poorer for it.



JOHNNY, WE HARDLY KNEW YE

ESPN reportedly has dropped John Harkes as its color commentator for its U.S. National Team and Major League Soccer telecasts and will be replaced by former New England Revolution star Taylor Twellman.  According to SI.com, Harkes, who was in the booth for ESPN’s coverage of the 2011 MLS Cup final, recently was informed that his contract would not be renewed.  [November 21]

Comment:  The search goes on for the complete package:  an American soccer color commentator who is quick, witty, insightful and a true complement to his play-by-play partner.

During his Hall of Fame career, Harkes, a two-time World Cup veteran, became known among media members as a good interview, the guy with a quick quip or an amusing impersonation.  As an ex-U.S. captain, he seemed to be an obvious choice as a TV soccer analyst.  Unfortunately, Harkes’ personality never came across on air.  He was very good at pointing out coaching points to youth players, but otherwise to Harkes there were just two aspects to soccer:  things that were “difficult” and things that were “important.” 

We’ve hardly seen the last of Harkes.  He’s been providing commentary since 2002, and with ABC/ESPN, NBC/NBC Sports and Fox/Fox Soccer Channel battling for soccer programming, there’ll be a need for experienced name analysts.  Viewers, however, are waiting for someone better.



THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED

In the first-ever regular-season European soccer match televised by a major American television network, Manchester United strengthened its grip on the top spot in the English Premier League by knocking off Chelsea, 3-1, at Old Trafford.  Chris Smalling, Nani and Wayne Rooney scored to give the Reds a three-goal lead at halftime.  Chelsea’s Fernando Torres scored a consolation goal but later missed when presented an open net.  Rooney also misfired on a penalty-kick attempt.  [September 18]

Comment:  Do not adjust your set.

Those guys in shorts on your screen really were playing football, on an NFL Sunday.  And it came courtesy of Fox–not Fox Soccer Channel, its cable offspring.  The game was aired in the U.S. on a delayed basis, either before or after Fox’s regional NFL telecast, thus creating an unprecedented football-gridiron football doubleheader.

The Manchester United-Chelsea game was the first of four Sunday EPL matches that will be aired this fall on Fox, the network no doubt encouraged by the number of viewers–2.6 million–it drew for its live telecast of last May’s UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Man. U.

Nearly 20 million Americans routinely tune in to watch NFL games.  Whether that means that many of them tuned in to see the New Orleans Saints beat the Chicago Bears, then stuck around to watch the doings in the Theater of Dreams, is very questionable.   Joe Six-Pack isn’t easily converted, whether it’s politics, religion or, more important, sports.   Nevertheless, Fox’s gambit sends a warning shot across the bow of those who continue to dismiss soccer as a sport with no future on American TV.

A month ago, NBC and Major League Soccer announced a $36 million, three-year deal that basically shifts MLS coverage from FSC, which reaches approximately 40 million homes, to the NBC Sports Network (known at present as VERSUS) and its 76 million homes.  Beginning in 2012, NBC and the cable NBC Sports Network will show a total of 49 MLS games a season, including four U.S. National Team matches.  Of those, the NBC network will air two U.S. games, two MLS regular-season matches and two MLS playoff games.

ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 remains in the game:  it still holds the rights to MLS games, including the MLS Cup, through 2014.  But as MLS Commissioner Don Garber told the New York Times, “The three-year deal [with NBC] allows us to align all our TV relationships [ESPN, Univision and newbie NBC] to end concurrently at the end of the ’14 season and provides us with a potential opportunity to have a more exclusive relationship with a broadcaster.”

By then, the ratings numbers from another World Cup, driven by that coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, will be in.  Then the fight over that admittedly modest-but-growing TV soccer pie will begin in earnest.

Hard to believe that when MLS launched in 1996, it had to pay ABC/ESPN for air time.  In a country where a sport’s worth is measured by its TV contract, that’s a bit of progress.



A NEW BID, AND A WHOLE NEW AMERICA (PART II)

Fox Soccer Channel, already running a daily countdown graphic in the upper corner of your television screen, plans extensive coverage of the Thursday, December 2, FIFA Executive Committee vote on the host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. 

“Fox Soccer Report Special, D-Day Minus One” will air Wednesday, December 1, at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.  “D-Day Minus One” will be reprised Friday, December 2, at 9 a.m., followed at 9:30 a.m. by live coverage of the announcements from Zurich.  (Note:  all times Eastern Standard.)  [November 28]

Comment:  Has America changed in the nearly 22 years since the U.S. was awarded its first World Cup?  There certainly was no soccer-specialty cable channel around in 1988 to cover the announcement that the United States had beaten out Morocco and Brazil.  (For the record, it was 10 votes to seven and two, respectively.)  There was no Internet, as we know it, so there was no www.fifa.com.   There was the nascent CNN, rare in American homes.  So it’s a personal anecdote that perhaps best encapsules the times:

The Executive Committe balloting to choose the host of the 15th World Cup had been moved by FIFA from June 30 to July 4, seen by many as a clear signal that the votes had lined up in the USA’s favor.  Nevertheless, advance coverage in the American mainstream media was almost non-existent.  This was just a World Cup, after all, not an Olympic Games.   On the Fourth of July, the winner was announced by FIFA Senior Vice President Harry Cavan at 1:21 p.m. local time in the Regulus Room of Zurich’s Movenpick Hotel.  So for one bleary eyed West Coast fan–nine time zones away in the pre-dawn darkness, anticipating a 1 o’clock, Swiss time, announcement–there was an additional wait of almost 25 minutes for the local all-news radio station to air its next twice-hourly sports report. 

At 4:45 a.m. (PDT), baseball scores and tennis results–nothing more.  Where to turn?   There was the temptation to call the Associated Press in New York, but perhaps there was a delay in the vote; surely the radio would bring the news in its next sportscast.  However, at 5:15 a.m., once again it was baseball and tennis, plus a bit of golf, so an anxious call was placed to the radio station’s newsroom.

Caller:  “Was the U.S. awarded the rights to host the 1994 World Cup?  Y’know, in soccer.”

KNX:  “Don’t know.  I’ll check sports.”  (A muffled, “Hey, did the U.S. get the ’94 soccer World Cup?”)  [Long pause]  “Yeah.”

Caller:  “The U.S. did get it?”  

KNX:  “Yeah.”

Caller:  “When did it come in?”

KNX:  (Muffled, again.)  [Pause]  “He says about an hour ago.”

Caller:  “Thank you.”

For the record, KNX reported the fact that the U.S. would host the biggest single-sport event in the world during its 5:45 a.m. sportscast to a listenership busy sleeping in on a national holiday.

[See the first A New Bid, A Whole New America; November 17; below.]



HAT IN HAND, GOUSABID MARCHES ON TO DECEMBER 2

“In 1994,” reads an e-mail by USA Bid Committee Honorary Chairman Bill Clinton, “I was the first president to watch a World Cup game on American soil.

“I’ll never forget that day:  the beauty of the Game, the roar of the crowd, and the power of soccer to unite people of such diverse backgrounds and beliefs.

“These past six months I’ve worked to bring this incredible experience to millions more Americans . . . .  I am proud that my voice has joined yours to tell the entire world that the Game Is In Us.  With FIFA’s decision less than a month away, we’re using every resource available to show we’re fully committed to bringing the World Cup to our country–and our best resource is fans like you.

“Will you support this effort with a contribution to the Bid Committee?  Any amount you can afford will make a real difference:  http://gousabid.com/donate.

“From Harlem to Haare, soccer is played in every corner of the planet, but perhaps no nation embodies the spirit of the Game like the United States.  We are a rich melting pot of cultures and ethnicities; every qualifying nation will feel as their they’re playing a home game on our pitch.

“Our diversity, our dedication, our unique blend of individual achievement and cooperation–these traits define both our nation and the game of soccer.  A FIFA World Cup in the United States in 2022 would be a perfect fit.

“We have just 23 days to make this dream a reality.  Now is not the time to hold back; now is the time to push on through the final whistle and send FIFA a clear message:  The Game Is In US.

“Help us send this message as powerfully as we possibly can.  Contribute to the Bid today.”  [November 9]

Comment: Contribute, by all means–it can’t hurt.

But first, a few questions are in order.  Such as, how will GoUSABid, a non-profit, use your donation (check a box ranging from $1 to $1,000, or “other”)?  And where in all this are the bid committee’s sponsors, AT&T, American Airlines and Fox Soccer Channel?

Above all, what’s the incentive, beyond giving the typically selfless American soccer fan who donates a warm and fuzzy feeling?  Why no offer of a spot near the head of the line if and when tickets to USA ’22 go on sale? 

Sure, these questions are a bit nigglng, but it should be noted that if GoUSABid succeeds, it will create a money-spinning behemoth that, by its own projections, will generate $1 billion in revenue from the turnstiles alone, based on five million available tickets.  By the time the last shekel is counted, it is doubtful that anyone will be around to thank the grassroots supporters who played a role.

Update:  If you felt bad about not contributing to this point, buck up.  Major League Soccer, its owners and the league’s marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, joined forces to present the Bid Committee with its largest single donation, a cool $2 million.  That should cover the committee members’ flight to Zurich next month.  [November 19]