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Jun 11, 2008

The commentators' competition

Like all self-respecting fans, Germans think that the true scourge of the game, the one thing that makes football almost unbearable to watch, are not play-acting foreigners, self-righteous referees, incompetent coaches or stinking-rich club owners.

No, it's the commentators.

Whenever there's a poll to find out who is the most popular man or woman with a mic, the results should not be headed 'The Best Commentators' but 'The Best of the Worst'.

Consider the latest such voting, held in March. It was won by Johannes B. Kerner, who works for one of Germany's two public service stations. (Which are, incidentally, covering Euro 2008.) Now, there are two things about this outcome that are problematic.

The first is that only 25 per cent of the people polled named Kerner. The second is that he hasn't commentated a game since 2006. These days, he exclusively works as a presenter, meaning he does the pre-match and post-match analysis together with the well-liked pundits Urs Meier (a former ref from Switzerland) and Jürgen Klopp (the former Mainz coach, now at Dortmund).

And so the people who voted for him have either not realised that he doesn't commentate on matches anymore. Or they picked him precisely for that reason.

In any case, one of the guys who almost always end up mired in the relegation zone whenever fans debate the country's commentators is the 43-year-old Steffen Simon. Only yesterday, the newspaper 'Die Welt' dealt with his performance during the match between Holland and Italy in no uncertain terms. 'Simon's style of commentating,' says the paper, 'lacks class, its all-determining feature is arrogance.' And, later: 'Well, all of this could somehow be forgiven if there was only a hint of sympathy attached to Simon. But since he invariably carries himself as if he was the Marcel Proust of German commentary, he not only comes across as being flashy but also sometimes quite silly.'

I'm not going to disagree with that. But it deserves mention that the Holland versus Italy game also brought some thirty seconds of outstanding, in the positive sense, commentary from Simon. Thirty seconds during which he did what a commentator should be doing (and seldom actually does), namely help the viewer understand what is going on.

And there's another thing. During those thirty seconds, Simon might have won the commentators' Euro 2008 competition. Because from what I have heard (and found in countless readers' comments on this here website), reporters in most countries, including big footballing nations like England or Italy, either stubbornly got the call wrong when Ruud van Nistelrooy brought Holland ahead or had to be educated as to the rule book before giving a verdict.

But the very instant when the broadcasting station cut from the insecurely celebrating Dutchmen to the first replay, Simon immediately and without any form of hesitation said (I paraphrase): 'Panucci is lying out of bounds but he is not out of the game. He's playing Van Nistelrooy onside. The goal must stand, correct decision.'

I had this rule somewhere in the back of my head because of the 1999 Champions League final. If you recall Teddy Sheringham's equaliser, you'll remember that United had won a corner that was cleared. Mehmet Scholl was covering the near post and as soon as the ball was hoofed out of the danger zone he, like all players do, came racing forward to play United's strikers offside. But when Ryan Giggs knocked the ball back into the box, Scholl hadn't yet made it far enough and Sheringham was onside by a single step.

I later discussed the game with a Bayern fan who insisted that Scholl was an idiot. He said (it was a long time ago, so I paraphrase again - and please bear in mind that he was very upset): 'It's the last bloody minute, it's the last damn attack. Even if Schmeichel has left his goal, you don't go for a fast break or something like that, you play it safe, goddamn it!

'The two defenders who are guarding the posts do not come running forward and risk being too slow, instead they just take one bloody step and move behind the goal line! Everybody wearing a red shirt is instantly offside and there's nothing they can do about it. They have to retreat and get behind the ball - and then the defenders step back onto the pitch!'

He was so convincing he must have done that many times in amateur games, but I guess he'd always had refs who weren't properly schooled. Because I objected that this was somehow unfair and couldn't be protected by the rules. And I think we checked it. But, like I said, that was almost a decade ago and as a commentator for the Holland game I wouldn't have dared to immediately give an opinion.

But Simon did. And he got it dead right. He knew the rules better than Günter Netzer, who came on at half-time and admitted he was a dumb-founded as the Italian players. Let's give Simon credit for that.

He's not in charge of Germany's next game, though. Béla Réthy, who was born in Vienna, grew up in Brazil and is of Hungarian descent, will commentate on Germany versus Croatia. In the poll mentioned above, he got a mere three per cent of the votes.

If you do a Google search for Réthy, halfway thorough you'll find a referees' blog and a piece headed "Réthy swears an oath of disclosure". This is meant figuratively and refers to a Cup game Réthy commentated in December of 2005.

The reporter had found many a fault with the referee during the game, and when it got to a penalty shoot-out, he couldn't resist a swipe: 'Looks like the referee couldn't settle on a goal for the shoot-out and has made the decision easier for himself by tossing a coin.'

Which, of course, is very simply what the referee is forced to do under the rules of the game.

Now let's just hope that there is no tricky situation in tomorrow's game because it seems that if Réthy has to get a call instantly right, we'll lose the lead Simon has given us in the commentators' Euro 2008 competition.

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