Friday, 22 January 2010


It's 22nd January. That means only one thing in my house - it's my parents' wedding anniversary. They'll either be delighted or mortified that I've mentioned that on The Cynical Challenge. Tune in next week to find out which!

Anyway, 22nd January is also an important date in the sporting calendar. On this day in 1927 the BBC broadcast live radio coverage of a football match for the very first time. Arsenal 1-1 Sheffield United, in case you were wondering. As the now famous tale goes, in the week running up to the match the Radio Times printed a diagram of a football pitch divided into numbered squares, so that the commentator could describe where the action was taking place - whence the phrase 'back to square one' entered the English language.

What better day, then, for Kickipedia to list a few of the great moments in sports commentary? Below is a brief list of the good, the bad, and the downright appalling commentary sequences, which all ultimately have their roots in that first BBC broadcast from Highbury 83 years ago.

Call me Crazy
It's impossible to do justice to the significance of the 1954 World Cup final, the so-called Miracle of Bern, in a short paragraph. For that, check out Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger's quite superb Tor!, a history of German football. In a (long, rambling) sentence: less than ten years after the entire country was destroyed by the hubris of Nazism and the invading Allied armies, West Germany beat Hungary, boasting Hidegkuti and Puskas, to lift the World Cup.

But the commentary provided by German reporter Herbert Zimmerman has gone down in history, as much, in many ways, as the match itself. With the score West Germany 2-2 Hungary and with six minutes remaining, Helmut Rahn powered the ball past Hungarian 'keeper Gyula Grosics, sending Zimmerman into rapture. "Rahn shoots...Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal!" Eight full seconds of silence. "Goal for Germany! Germany lead 3-2. Call me mad, call me crazy!" The catharsis of an entire nation in the voice of one man. 

"Harmison...Jones...Kasprowicz". Okay, it's not the most elegant of sequences - but that makes it all the more special. Commentator Richie Benaud always allowed the sport on the field to speak for itself, and his perfect, concise description to the nailbiting finish to the 2005 Ashes Test at Edgbaston, which England won by just two runs, was a fine example. Benaud mastered the art of using silence to his advantage, allowing the drama to build on screen before adding his deft finishing verbal touches. It's a lesson that, where commentary is concerned, sometimes less is more.

Dennis Who?
This is perhaps as famous for the quite magnificent goal it accompanied as for the commentary itself, but it still goes down as one of the most dramatic pieces of sports commentary ever. With two minutes to go in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal between the Netherlands and Argentina, and the score at 1-1, the tension seemed to have got to Dutch commentator Jack van Gelder, who announced to Dutch viewers, "I have a feeling we're going into the semifinals". What followed requires little explanation, but for those desperate to know: "Frank de Boer plays the ball, on to Dennis Bergkamp, Dennis Berkgamp, Dennis Bergkamp..." ad infinitum. Probably, football commentary is so full of exaggeration these days that, when a truly astounding goal is scored, commentators go into meltdown, as van Gelder aptly demonstrated. 

Super Sid
Darts. Not a sport often linked to classical Greece (some would say not a sport at all). But commentator Sid Waddell, who served his intellectual apprenticeship at Cambridge University before opting to pursue a career in sports commentary, manages to produce these kinds of ambitious comparison by the bucketload. Once, commentating on a match featuring Eric 'The Crafty Cockney' Bristow - perhaps best described as the David Beckham of darts during the 1980s - Waddell uttered the immortal line: "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds left to conquer...Bristow's only 27." And there's plenty more where that came from.

Francis Lee's interesting face
BBC commentator Barry Davies has had a truly varied career. As one of the corporation's more versatile employees, he's been everywhere from World Cup finals to Winter Olympics. He even had a short stint in the 1990s voicing a sketch on comedy series Big Train. But nothing he has ever said during commentary compares with his description of events at Manchester City's Maine Road in December 1974.

Facing Derby County, the home side were being held 1-1 when Derby's former Manchester City player Francis Lee picked up the ball 30 yards from goal. The ensuing goal, and the surreal commentary to go with it (from 0:42), have gone down in footballing folklore, so much so that Davies named his autobiography after it.

Of course, these are just a selection of my favourites, so if you have any other contenders by all means make your suggestions in the box below.


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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James