The view from Germany

Giving football a voice

March 2, 2013
By Uli Hesse
(Archive)

When I told my wife that it was time for another ESPN FC column and that, having written no less than 285 of them in the last ten years, I was becoming afraid I no longer had the slightest idea what to write about, she said: "Just write about watching football on the telly with the sound turned off."

Marcel Reif commentary Sky Sports
GettyImagesMarcel Reif has long been the voice of football in Germany, but he polarises opinion

And you know what? It's another of the great suggestions my wife keeps coming up with. If slightly tweaked, that is. Because what she was referring to was last Monday, when she was reading one of her historical novels while I was watching West Ham vs Tottenham with the sound turned off so as to not disturb her.

However, I'll bring up that game in more detail only next week. For now, I'm going to write about an entirely different reason to turn off the sound when watching a game. And that is, of course, the commentator.

For the majority of football fans, commentators are in same class as referees - there are only bad ones, very bad ones and a tiny few that are bearable. But, just as with referees, there is no real consensus about who the bearable ones are.

On Sunday, for instance, my friend Ingo used the occasion of the Gladbach vs Dortmund game, which was covered live only by the subscription channel Sky Germany, to do what he often does: complain about commentator Marcel Reif via Facebook.

Reif is by and large the German equivalent of John Motson. Yes, he's four years younger than Motty, he didn't get an OBE and he's not known as the "Voice of Football" because he didn't spend four decades with a public service broadcasting corporation but instead went with whoever held the crucial rights and thus has worked for three different stations.

But Reif has covered every Champions League final (bar one) and every World Cup final (bar one) since the early '90s, is easily the most famous of currently active commentators in Germany, has won the two most prestigious prizes there are to win in his profession and, with his silver hair, he now has the elder-statesman look that Motson was born with.

Ingo hates him with a passion. And he's not alone. In October 1996, during a Champions League game between Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid, the home fans spent the 90 minutes hurling chants and insulting songs at the man they knew was manning the mic for television - Marcel Reif.

The Dortmund supporters were convinced that Reif, who grew up in Kaiserslautern and played for that club, was a closet Bayern fan and overly critical of Dortmund's performances, particularly on the international stage, during that season. In fact, a supposed lack of objectivity is still the main point of criticism Reif's numerous detractors usually bring up when explaining their aversion to him.

Wolff-Christoph Fuss commentator and Jurgen Klopp
GettyImagesWolff-Christoph Fuss won the much- coveted 'Most Emotional Live Football Coverage of the Year' award in 2011

Personally, I like him. Back in 1996, when the rest of the South Stand was singing anti-Reif songs, I told the people standing around me that we were making utter fools of ourselves, as Reif's statements had been perfectly okay and that attacking a commentator in this way was the height of absurdity.

And while I have grown tired of a few of his mannerisms over the years, I still hold Reif in some regard because he possesses a quality that has become very rare - he has the courage to keep his mouth shut.

In the old days, football commentators - on television, of course, not on the radio - would say absolutely nothing, or perhaps just half-mumble a few past names to let you know who'd just touched the ball, for really long periods of time. And why not? There was no need for the commentator to tell me that somebody had had a shot at goal that went only inches wide unless he suspected that I wasn't really watching but washing the dishes in the kitchen or whatever.

But now football commentators, maybe inspired by the style prevalent on American television, have almost become play-by-play announcers - pass-by-pass announcers, so to speak. Which is why I have severe problems with current fan favourite Wolff-Christoph Fuss (now a colleague of Reif's at Sky Germany again). In May 2011, Fuss won a prize for the "Most Emotional Live Football Coverage of the Year", though I suspect "Most Garrulous Coverage" would have been more fitting.

In any case, the award he won was named after Herbert Zimmermann, who produced the single most famous piece of commentary in the history of German football when he covered the 1954 World Cup final for radio. Yes, it was a totally emotional commentary, but the funny thing is that this wasn't really Zimmermann's style. In fact, he was rather unhappy about having allowed himself to get carried away by the occasion.

Zimmermann's commentary, by the way, has become so incredibly famous and emblematic of the "Miracle of Berne" simply because we no longer have the television commentary. At the time, there was no way to preserve the TV coverage for posterity on tape and so we don't know for sure what commentator Bernhard Ernst said on television, we only have Zimmermann - and his East German colleague Wolfgang Hempel, who was far less emotional for obvious reasons.

This, the lack of recording technology, also explains why we don't really know who the very first German football commentator on television was. Regular television in West Germany started on December 25, 1952 (four days after it began in East Germany!). One day later, on Boxing Day, the only station at the time - NWDR from Hamburg - covered a cup game between St. Pauli and Hamborn 07 (a club from Duisburg) live in its entirety.

In most books, this is referred to as the first live match in Germany. However, during the preceding months there had been many test runs. On August 23, 1952, three NWDR cameras captured the Oberliga Nord game of Hamburg SV vs Altona 93 and sent it live into... well, not really homes, because no private persons yet had television sets and there was no official schedule. But it was live TV coverage nonetheless and somebody must have done the commentary to make it a proper test run.

But even this early game may not have been the first. There is some controversy over when live football on television began. Some sources mention the 1938 FA Cup final between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, some point towards a game between Arsenal's first team and Arsenal reserves (no kidding) in 1937.

But in 1936, the Berlin television station Paul Nipkow (basically the first such station in the world) supplied 160,000 viewers - in total, of course, not on any given day! - with test coverage of the 1936 Olympics. Paul Nipkow was on air every day from 10.00-12.00, 15.00-19.00 and 20.00-22.00 during the 16 days of the Olympics.

Olympic football Berlin
APThe 1936 Olympics in Berlin may lay claim to providing the first ever television broadcast of a football match

There were three cameras, two at the Olympic Stadium and one at the swimming stadium. The commentator was also live at the events, but since he didn't have a monitor, the camera had to try to follow his commentary instead of the other way around. So it could happen that the commentator was describing one event while the camera captured another.

The last four matches of the football tournament - the two semi-finals, the bronze-medal match and the final - were played at the Olympic Stadium. Which makes it possible that Italy vs Norway, the first semi, which kicked off on August 10 at 17.00 (and thus would've fit nicely into Paul Nipkow's schedule) may have been the first game on TV. So perhaps one of this historic station's announcers, Otto Graebke and Hans-G√ľnther Marek, was the first commentator.

However, my friend Hagen Leopold, a noted football historian and memorabilia expert, says he's looked into this matter but hasn't found any evidence of there being live football coverage on Paul Nipkow.

In any case, one thing is beyond doubt. Had Graebke or Marek covered football for Paul Nipkow, viewers would have called the station to complain about the commentator. Some would have said he favoured Italy, others that he had a soft spot for Norway. And all would have agreed that there aren't any good commentators. Or that they used to be much better in the good old days.