Eleven West German players weren't the only things the Italians slipped between during yesterday's 3-1 World Cup victory, seen live for the first time in this country. They also safely dodged three times as many American commercials.
Does this mean there's hope for a game without timeouts here in the land of Budweiser? Possibly. But first, these messages from our critic.
Among the biggest losers yesterday was ABC's Jim McKay, who pushed uninspired hyperbole to the limit in his quest to assure us that, Hey, soccer is okay. McKay looked tired during the pregame stand-up; if he had any of the "world class" he then repeatedly attributed to yesterday's action, he might have asked the coach to take him out and give color commentator Paul Gardner a chance to shine. But no.
"Italy leads 14 to nothing!" McKay shouted after the Italians got past goalkeeper Harald Schumacher to make it 2-0 in the second half. He also referred to the final score as 3-0. And in case you didn't know that Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff was the oldest player in the World Cup, or that the Germans' Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was probably the best player in Europe, and possibly the world, never fear. McKay mentioned each one at least three times.
Is it petty to pick on Jim McKay for such dumb gaffes? After all he's done in Munich and Lake Placid and just about everywhere else ABC has sent him the past 30 years? What would he have said if Italian Coach Enzo Bearzot had decided to play it safe against Germany, and made McKay's precious "exciting world championship" into a dull game of keepaway?
As it turned out, the British-born Gardner, who has worked well with McKay on ABC's coverage of NASL soccer in this country, shone anyway. He was the model of reserve, summarizing plays and strategy with grace and wit despite the lousy sound, and generally refraining from McKay's compulsion to apply American metaphors to everything that happened in Madrid.
"Try to imagine that NFL football was as popular as it is in the United States, not just in one country," McKay said, setting up the game, "but in more than a hundred countries, and that the Super Bowl was played not every year but every four years . . ."
Whew. He sure gave me perspective.
McKay also likened the Italians' late-game passing strategy to Dean Smith's four-corner defense and compared the celebratory postgame shouldering of Coach Enzo Bearzot to that of Vince Lombardi. In the closing segment (which Washington's WJLA-TV-7 decided inexplicably to skip, instead rolling Atari and Toyota spots and the opening credits of "Revista," a taped Spanish-language public affairs show), McKay invoked not only the Kentucky Derby but Tom Watson's U.S. Open victory and the upcoming British Open. (All brought to you by ABC Sports, by the by.)
Among the problems with "spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of athletic competition" are technical foulups, made riskier by distance. ABC had satellite trouble yesterday, particularly with the broadcast's audio portion. The sound ranged from terrific to not much better than the hollow phone-line quality endured by SIN's Spanish-language viewers, who saw the game locally on Channel 56. Crowd sounds were never great, though this wasn't ABC's fault. Spanish television provided most of the raw sound.
Spanish television also provided almost all of ABC's video--good pictures, in general, and effectively enhanced by producer Ken Wolfe's and director Craig Janoff's use of ABC's sole on-field camera, located behind one of the goals.
On the use of Experts: a time-tested concept, but it didn't work this time. Cutting at halftime and after the game to see '74 World Cup Italian player Giorgio Chinaglia smile and shuck at Jack Whitaker was cute. Mario Machado, who has "covered the last four World Cups," though few people know for whom, put in an adequate performance in his pregame assessment of West German potential. But his postgame performance was better:
McKay: "Mario Machado, what's your comment on the game?"
Machado: (Crowd sounds)
McKay: "Well, I guess Mario's microphone is not on now . . ."
Finally, the commercials. ABC missed nothing major by cutting away for its 27 30-second spots (not including 12 before the game and five afterward). But if you watched on the Spanish-language station, you would have seen the game the way most of the estimated 1.5 billion viewers around the rest of the world saw it.
The commercials (including a Spanish-language Coca-Cola spot in which a kid befriends Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, a la Mean Joe Greene) are run before and after the game. During the game, you either see the commercials on a split screen or you see little animated ads romping across the bottom of the picture.
All of this slightly misses the point. Effort was spent to make yesterday's final what is called good television--television with pathos and pace, which is what the experts say Americans want. But when the effort seems too much like effort--as it did with McKay--the result is not good television. The best "television" I saw yesterday were Budweiser commercials, two 60-second showcases of pathos and pace. Whether good soccer-- 90-minute, timeout-less, eminently straightforward games such as yesterday's--makes good television remains to be seen.
The networks probably will think of something, though. Something way out--like indoor soccer, maybe.