(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first half of an interview with celebrated soccer commentators Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson, the second half of which will be published soon. Also, while posted under my name, this was really a BFB team effort.)
Welcome to Barcelona Football Blog. My name is Levon and I am one of the contributors on our blog, which together with our team and readers is really more of a community than “just another football website”. I am sure the question on everyone’s lips ’round these here parts is: “Do you ever visit our pages or did your PR-man get you in to this?”
Ray: I always pay a visit to your excellent site,one of my first stops leading up the Barca matches. I even posted a couple of times using my real name,but no one believed it was me…so I stopped.
Phil: Mes que un blog, eh? Well, for me I don’t read everything but I try to. I have gone to your site, a lot over the years. However, nowadays with so much good information out there I tend to not go to websites directly. Rather I have RSS feeds set up to bring interesting stories to me or I’ll search for something, like a Barcelona preview. And when Barcelona Football Blog pops up I tend to give it a read. And as for Ray, our PR guys are good, but no one can make Ray do something he doesn’t want to!
For quite some time people were concerned about no American network picking up the rights to La Liga. What can we expect now that BeIN SPORT has taken on the mantle?
Ray: Like you all do with Barca…bigger,better and more brilliant with every passing year…and if there’s a mistake or disappointment along the way, its the end of the world!!!
Phil: I think La Liga is ingrained in the American soccer culture now. The Premier League has a huge head start but when you have the stars and history that are in Spanish football nowadays, anyone who knows anything realizes the quality on display in La Liga. However, what we were able to be a part of before when it first burst onto the screen to nowadays with the fantastic work that beIN Sport is doing just drives that quality home.
Do you believe La Liga has the potential to become America’s most popular league?
Ray: If the predominantly Brit-centric culture subsides and viewers WATCH the actual quality of Liga and appreciate the aesthetic of the Spanish league over the atmospheric EPL…and there needs to be a more equitable agreement between all the clubs for the TV money,to allow the other clubs at least some chance of closing the gap on Real Madrid and Barca and make a more competitive league.
Phil: Whew. Like I said, the EPL has a big head start. For example, I’ve been following Arsenal since the 1970s back when it was on PBS! And there might not be a better publicity machine than the Premier League in all of sports. However, the quality of play is not always the best to put it mildly. It’s a great experience, due in large part to the fans in the stadium. And the best teams do play some nice football. However, from a technical, skill perspective it can’t compare to La Liga, the Bundesliga or a resurgent Serie A. I’d say even France and Portugal are getting closer to the EPL every year. Still, as I said, it has a history – and it shares a common language so that American fans are always able to find out what’s going on in England. However, there are so many languages spoken in American soccer that English is far from exclusive – and soccer is a language all its own. And with the explosion of the internet and social media, blogs like yours are able to fill in those gaps to make it a much more complete experience for La Liga fans.
Speaking of which, what is the state of La Liga in your view, and what are some ways you would improve it?
Ray: See above…plus use an additional referees assistant behind the goal.
Phil: It’s an extremely exciting league with so much skill and talent on display every week. I think the rise of teams like Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad in recent years have made it even more engaging. It does have an unfair reputation of being a two-team league, but when you’re competing against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, it’s not easy to grab the headlines. However, some critics have assumed that this means the teams that finish behind them aren’t good. That’s why the performances in Europe by Atleti, Athletic, Valencia and the others are so important. However, I do think it could be a house of cards, maybe a house of credit cards is a better description. The league needs to shore up its financials. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and if teams are falling by the wayside that diminishes the big teams at the top as well. I think the Bundesliga might have caught up with La Liga as the best league in the world, and Serie A is rapidly reclaiming its past glory. Still, I believe an equitable sharing of television revenues and practical, logical restraints on piling up debt can only make La Liga stronger in years to come.
What kind of advance scouting do you do before calling a match, and how much pre-match prep goes into it?
Ray: I read all the same outlets as any fan of the game, plus we get help from beIN Sports staff. Phil catologues every statistic known to mankind since Noah was building his Ark, so I leave that to him. Theres a risk of “over-analyzing” also because I always feel like every game takes onto itself its own personality and theres no predicting what thats gonna be. I try to take into account very recent form as my main reference point, rather than what happened in a particular fixture over,say 10 years…same goes for player individually; where are they on their performance chart, judging that by their own standards.
Phil: Ha! It never stops. I read what’s going on for hours at a time, every day. And as we get closer to game day, I focus in more on the game at hand. Plus, we get information packets from the producers, the league, statistical breakdowns and much more. Then, it’s compiling all of that information as neatly and organized as possible so its accessible when you need it.
What do you say to people who accuse you of favoring Barça over RM, or the reverse?
Ray: I have given and will always give every team the credit and criticism they deserve,regardless of the color of the shirt. If a listener has that bias against me its because they are perhaps “hearing” what I`m saying and not “listening”…theres nothing I can do about that but I love the performers of cultivated football no matter who it is,in what league and what country.
Phil: Well, there are only a few teams I would say I was a true fan of, Arsenal, the US national team, Ray’s old Strikers and Fusion – but I think if you’re a true fan in this business, you’re probably even MORE critical of the teams you support. I know Ray hears that a bit, but that’s from people that just don’t know Ray. Ray’s not really a fan of teams, but of players – and specifically players that play a certain way. He loves Messi, but he probably loves Riquelme even more. And he’s a huge fan of Özil and Ibrahimovic. I think he appreciates players who put in that extra effort, but he’s a fan of players who have been blessed with that vision, that talent to do the impossible.
(to Phil) You have been commenting soccer matches since 2002. Now that the game has gained more and more respect in the U.S, have quips and garbs from family and friends turned into acknowledgment and admiration for being a pioneer?
Phil: 2002? I wish I was that young! Let’s see, my first soccer telecast would have been some time back in 1988 or 89. I did some games in the old ASL in New Jersey. I did an Olympic qualifier in Dublin, Ohio back when Alexi Lalas was just growing that beard! You’re right though. It wasn’t easy to find soccer on English-language television back then. I loved soccer so much though that when I found out that I could get paid to talk about it… it’s like that line from Dumb & Dumber “So you’re saying it’s possible!” My first national exposure came in 1996 as the first voice of Major League Soccer. That was a special day in San Jose calling Eric Wynalda’s goal. I’ve been able to call action from several World Cup tournaments, the Copa America and so much more. There was a belief back then that soccer announcers were either waiting for an opportunity to jump to one of the so-called ‘big’ sports, or just weren’t good enough to get there. Nowadays, after nearly two decades of MLS and all of the soccer channels that have blazed the path to where we are now with beIN Sport, there are some great announcers out there that share my love and passion for the beautiful game. I don’t know if I’d call myself a pioneer, but I was blessed and fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do what I love for a living.