Essays and Notable Articles and Sport

The Magisterial Goal

By posted at 6:37 am on February 2, 2010 27

The great English broadcaster Ray Hudson once said of the great Argentine footballer Juan Román Riquelme, “Look at him, so languid, look at him walking. He’s like a big, beautiful zombie, Riquelme. He just strolls around…like smoke off a cigarette.” Hudson values hyperbole over precision—or at least succumbs to the former—for he suffers from a sort of fanatic epilepsy when he works. Hudson told me, “When that spotlight’s on you, and you’re calling a game, you’re in the moment, instantaneous, and the selection of words, phrases, and anecdotes are improvised. There’s very little time for actual thought. There’s very little time for reflection on what you’re actually going to say.” And Hudson’s quips, spontaneous and unedited, have gained him a reputation as one of the most notorious announcers in all of sports.

Hudson made his career first as a soccer player—for Newcastle United in England, and later for various teams in the defunct North American Soccer League. But he is best known for announcing the modern game for GolTV. Commentary for a soccer match, more so than in any other sport, is like the musical accompaniment to ballet. Therefore as a broadcaster, Hudson is comparable to the conductor of an orchestra playing in the pit beneath a stage of dancers; he adds context and emotion to the drama. No wonder, then, that he often likens footballers to beautiful women. “I’m telling you man,” Hudson once said of FC Barcelona’s seventeen-year-old striker, Bojan Krkic, “this kid could be the best thing on two legs since Sophia Loren.”

Unlike most American sports, soccer is a fluid game, with frequent changes of possession and few clear, numeric statistics to evaluate. Soccer is improvisational, whereas American football is regimented. In football, plays are designed then executed, to greater or lesser success. In soccer, players practice formations and then improvise within a spontaneous framework. Therefore soccer, whose action is as constant as light, requires a reactive, jazz-like call. “Most people,” Hudson said, “have no concept of how challenging and demanding it is to call a game. I mean, we’re seeing those pictures the same second you’re seeing them.” There are few numbers to pore over, so the color man’s broadcast, if done well, strives, not to investigate the efficacy of a play, but to transliterate excitement. “When it gets into the red zone,” Hudson said, “when it gets into that area where something truly special might develop, that’s where I come out of the long grass. That’s when it’s showtime for me. And that preparation takes on its own dynamic. If it’s an intoxicating game that has all the ingredients for a beautiful, hot stew, then what are you going to do?”

Stylistically, Hudson is a compositor of metaphor. Like the critic and memoirist Anatole Broyard, who describing a lover once wrote, “Her waist was so small, it cut her in two, like a split-personality, or two schools of thought,” Hudson is disinterested in, or even incapable of, inventing basic similes. His description of a goal scored during a meeting of the Mexican and Argentine national sides—“Heinze jumps up like Rudolf Nureyev, beautiful, [and] stabs it home. But it’s Riquelme, man… [His movement is] impossible, like pouring a pint of beer into a shot glass”—suggests, if not a frenetic mind, an uncontainable one. His mouth can’t always keep up with his brain. “It’s not within me,” Hudson said. To be pedestrian with any of my descriptions. I’m just incapable of it. I mean, you hear me now. Once you start me, you cannot stop me.”

I asked him to tell me about the most exciting match he ever announced, and he thought immediately of the 38th round of the 2007 La Liga championship (judging by Youtube views, it is also his most famous). Hudson’s announcing is passionate to the point of violence. To give a little context to the game, Hudson was the color analyst, and Phil Schoen the broadcaster, for Real Madrid’s season-ending match at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. The morning of the 17th, Real Madrid was tied at the top of the table with its perennial political and sporting rival, FC Barcelona. Earlier in the season, in their head-to-head match-ups, Madrid had taken four of six points from Barcelona, beating the Catalans at home and drawing away. This meant that if by day’s end both teams were victorious in their matches, Madrid would win the league.

Both clubs kicked off simultaneously. By halftime, Barcelona was laying waste to Gimnastic 3-0. Madrid, on the other hand, was trailing 0-1 to Mallorca at home. If the result stood, Barcelona would win the title. But then in the 68th minute Madrid scored, leveling their match. In the 78th they scored again, taking the lead. When Jose Reyes scored two minutes later, he confirmed Madrid’s victory, and with it, the title.

“The world was watching,” Hudson remembered, “and you felt something historical was going to happen. Also in that game, there was a good bit of jousting between Phil [Schoen] and me, because the camera kept cutting to these people in the stands, these Hollywood celebrities. I remember in particular for that game Tom Cruise [and Rafael Nadal] were there. And Phil kept going on about Tom Cruise while this gladiatorial fight to the death was happening before us.” As we talked, Hudson’s voice began to rise. “And I got so incensed that I nearly lost it.”

Recapping the match live as time ran out, Hudson said of Madrid’s goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, who by his estimation had saved the game, and who had cried in joy after the definitive third goal got scored, “That’s why you see those beautiful tears from a man whose heart is bursting.” The camera, here, cut away to the crowd, where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were kissing triumphantly in the stands. Perhaps to annoy him, Schoen asked if Hudson’s comment were directed at Cruise. Hudson screamed, “Would you stop talking about tennis players and stupid Hollywood actors, Phil! It’s the gladiators out there, man.” Then, with great disgust, Hudson went on: “Tom Cruise. Give me a break. If he smelled a soccer jockstrap, he’d faint dead away.”

Between his playing and commentating days, Hudson has seen countless goals—and many magnificent ones—but one in particular stands out above them, as Real Madrid’s definitive game in June 2007 rises in his mind above the other matches he’s called. Ronaldinho, the Brazilian striker who played his best football in Barcelona, once scored a goal against Villa Real that during the match, along side other hyberboles (“As electrifying as a hairdryer thrown into a hot tub” ) Hudson claimed was tantamount to religious art.

Hudson described the goal to me this way. “It was an overhead kick, at an angle, just into the corner of the box, and I called it, if I remember correctly, ‘A Bernini sculpture of a goal, that rivals the Ecstasy of St. Teresa.’ Now, there are probably two people around the United States tuning in who had even heard of Bernini. But for me, it was that good. And in my opinion, instances like that need to be compared to something monumental, to something of an exquisiteness completely unique. And that sculpture came immediately to mind.” He went on: “[During the replays] there was this one wonderful shot of the defender who had been the closest to Ronny, who had just seen this goal, and he was simply stupefied. I described him like Lot’s wife, turning to salt. And then the next second the camera cut away to this little blonde boy in the stands, this little cherub in a Barcelona shirt, and he started smiling. I remember saying, ‘His big bright eyes have just grown the size of saucer plates. He’s never seen anything like this in his life, and he never will again.’”

covercoverI did not grow up a sports fan. I played soccer and baseball, and later golf, but my father, despite coaching a number of teams I played on, didn’t watch games on TV. By the time I got to college, being a sports fan seemed primitive to me. I fancied myself an artist. Entertainment, I thought, should be a strictly intellectual pursuit, so I watched a lot of emotionally vacant French films, and read a bunch of calamitous, dystopian novels. Back then I thought of Bande á parte and Blood Meridian as the pinnacles of culture.

Then in October of 2002, I was staying at my parents’ house. I’d dropped out of college in New York two days before the start of my sophomore year and returned to California. I was drinking too much in Brooklyn, but more significantly, my girlfriend lived in my hometown. Fittingly, though, a month after I got back, she left for school in Irvine. Finding myself alone and acutely depressed one Saturday evening, I turned on the sixth game of the World Series. The Giants, who because of their proximity to my hometown I’d been a nominal fan of as a boy, led the Angels until the seventh. But with one out in that inning, Dusty Baker pulled his starter, Russ Ortiz, who to that point hadn’t allowed a run. The reliever, Félix Rodríguez, promptly gave up a three run homer. In the eighth, the Angel’s third baseman, Troy Glaus, doubled in two more runs. The Giants lost.

The next night I watched the seventh game, which was a sort of underwhelming catastrophe. By the third, all the runs that were to get scored had been. The Giants almost rallied in the ninth, getting two men on with only one out. But Kenny Lofton flied out to right-center to end the Series, in favor of the Angels. I broke down in tears. It’s the only time, before or since, that I’ve cried over a game. But that loss, and my illogical reaction to it, proved to me that sport has the capacity to evoke, or at least unlock, genuine emotion.

Since then I’ve been a dedicated fan—first of baseball, then of soccer, and finally of mixed martial arts and cycling. As a writer, sports provide for me a finite dramatic stage where a protagonist and an antagonist attempt metaphorically (though in fighting sometimes literally) to kill each other. The plots of the stories, if I’m being reductive, are repetitive. But the distillation of competition, thematic and actual, is the stuff of art. One night in Boston, after the Oakland A’s (I am, again, a geographical fan) got swept by the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 American League Championship Series—a defeat that ruined my mood for the remainder of the playoffs—I felt inspired to write on my wall when I got home from the bar, “If I’m not allowed to care terribly about a game men play, neither should I be affected by anything else man invents.”

This is why I like listening to Ray Hudson. He takes sports even more seriously than I do. If, for me, soccer (or baseball or cycling or football) is a representation of human struggle, and is in that sense a means to dissecting and then producing art, for Hudson the game itself is the end—and therefore art itself. “What an absolute scientific goal again,” he once said of a Riquelme masterpiece. “[It’s the great Argentine] who is the Einstein of it…Stand up! Get out of your sofas and applaud if you’re a football fan, because the poets just wrote a sonnet to all of us.” Soccer, for Hudson, is the conflation of science and art, equal parts spontaneity and technique. But when I spoke to him, he was rather dismissive of his role as a broadcaster. “I’ve never had much foresight into what I’m doing. Literally, when the lights go on, I just get out there and tap dance my way through it… I use my very minor knowledge of the English language, and my passion for the game, to accentuate a match.” When everything is said and done, though, the novelist only strives to accentuate the world around him. He observes and he comments. And if that commentary is sufficiently careful and emotional, he commemorates the action permanently.





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27 Responses to “The Magisterial Goal”

  1. drew
    at 6:54 am on February 2, 2010

    Ray Hudson is a hack. Don’t kid yourself that his quips are spontaneous. He makes GolTV nearly unwatchable–certainly unlistenable.

  2. Will
    at 12:52 pm on February 2, 2010

    Ray is the best there is. His commentary can make the dullest games seem interesting. It’s to bad there aren’t more announcers out there who could announce a game with the same passion that Ray does.

  3. James Kaelan
    at 1:41 pm on February 2, 2010

    Will, I agree completely. Ray may not be a “proper” English football announcer, but he’s the most passionate man in broadcasting. Drew, I think Ray is anything but a hack, although he might describe himself that way (he’s fairly self-deprecating). Tommy Smyth, on the other hand, who calls Champions League games for ESPN, with his solitary catch-phrase — “Bulged the back of the ol’ onion bag” — despite giving some good insight into the game, is a stylistic hack.

  4. Drew
    at 1:46 pm on February 2, 2010

    I would rather listen to Bill Walton and John Madden call the national spelling bee than listen to Ray Hudson call la liga games. Ray Hudson is Dick Vitale with a more extensive vocabulary. He yells over the game and rarely gives any valuable in-game analysis. An obtuse commentator for such a spectacularly nuanced game.

  5. James Kaelan
    at 2:04 pm on February 2, 2010

    I would agree that the staid, unemotional, English-style commentary has its place in the broadcasting arena. Perhaps, for some, nuance deserves understatement. But I would argue that beauty deserves excitement. Anyway, you and I just have different aesthetic preferences. I can’t fault you. That being said, I’d love to hear Dick Vitale call a spelling bee. Ray, too.

  6. David M.
    at 2:27 pm on February 2, 2010

    I think you nailed it Kaelan when you said, “the color man’s broadcast, if done well, strives, not to investigate the efficacy of a play, but to transliterate excitement.” Hudson does that better than anyone else. Almost distractingly well, which is paradoxical–his excitement can usurp the game for me. But I enjoy it every time.

    I think I’m glad Ray doesn’t call EPL games, but man, I wish he called my pickup games.

  7. Drew
    at 2:52 pm on February 2, 2010

    But to me his enthusiasm seems premeditated and phony. It’s one thing to “transliterate” the excitement of a Lionel Messi wonder goal, but quite another to erupt into hyperbolic wailing every time Ibrahimovic runs onto a through-ball and knocks it off the post.

    I’m not saying that screaming has no place in a sports broadcast, but I think Hudson should be a little more discriminate. I think he fails to reflect the excitement of the most beautiful plays because he is so frequently excited by the mundane.

    GolTv’s broadcasts certainly don’t help his commentary seem any less manufactured. The audio on the la liga games is terrible, and it’s hard to take his enthusiasm seriously when you know he’s watching the game on television in a Florida studio, and all that you can hear besides Hudson’s howling is the interminable droning hum of the fans.

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  9. brooke
    at 9:13 pm on February 2, 2010

    Wow! This so brilliantly transliterates the joy and art of sport through its profile of Hudson that this old soccer mom is once again ready to be a fan. How do I get a schedule of broadcasts?

  10. Denese
    at 11:21 pm on February 2, 2010

    Great piece Kaelan; you made Ray someone I’d like to meet someday.

  11. Emily
    at 12:14 am on February 3, 2010

    I’d put Adrian Healey, Derek Rae, Andy Gray, and (my favorite) the much maligned Tommy “the ol’ onion bag” Smyth ahead of Ray.

    Though nothing–and I mean nothing–is worse than a football match commentated on by an American: J.P. Dellacamara, John Harkes, Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas, Loudy Foudy, and, worst of all, Dave O’Brien. We just don’t make football announcers over here and we shouldn’t even try.

  12. Joe McGinniss
    at 12:43 am on February 3, 2010

    Ray Hudson combines Oxbridge (or at least Newcastle) erudition with South American passion. Also, he played the game for many years, mixing glamor and grit. This is a former teammate of Gordon Banks! He was named to an NASL all-star team with Beckenbauer and Cruyff and Pele’!

    Ray often says we who view should appreciate how lucky we are to see a team like Guardiola’s Barça. He’s right. We should also appreciate how lucky we are to be able to listen to him. Barça make the glorious music, but Ray supplies the passionate libretto without which there would not be opera.

    Sure, I suppose you can dislike his commentary, calling it over the top or whatever. People said that about Howard Cosell. Maybe some are more comfortable with treacly cliches. Those who venture beyond, such as Bob Dylan, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde or P.G. Johnson, risk incurring their wrath.

    Ray doesn’t care. Ray risks. A startup in a crowded market, like the new MLS team in Philly, should hope and pray that Ray will grace them with his hall of fame presence.

  13. Luciano
    at 4:03 am on February 3, 2010

    Thanks so much for this piece and the videos. I had heard this guy (on Youtube videos) before but i had no idea who he was. You wrote a great great profile on him and touched many interesting subjects along the way. Well done! Congrats from Brazil! Luciano

  14. Steve
    at 9:41 am on February 3, 2010

    Emily, let’s not forget the very worst of American announcers, one MAX BRETOS. I literally cannot watch MLS games if he’s announcing, he has zero insight and his ridiculous shouting of “YYYYYEEEEEEESSSSSSSSS” every time a goal makes me want to rip my own ears off.

    I love Ray, if only because the hyperbole is so funny. My focus lies with the action on the pitch, but he becomes a welcome addition (or distraction) and is a breath of fresh air compared to most announcing teams on American channels.

  15. Martek
    at 9:52 am on February 3, 2010

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I want Ray Hudson to do color commentary on my life. I listen to him and Phil Schoen call games on Gol TV and I never care AT ALL who the teams are, as long as it’s Schoen and Hudson. They are amazing.

  16. Brian
    at 10:10 am on February 3, 2010

    If I wanted to listen to some drunken rambling about soccer, I’d mute the TV and talk to myself. Hudson is horrific. Then again, some of my opinion is negated by watching him coach for several years and seeing that he has the soccer IQ of a squirrel.

  17. Marco
    at 10:38 am on February 3, 2010

    As a DC United fan I miss Ray’s passion on the RFK touchline, but his enthusiasm and (sometimes mixed) metaphors always make the GOL TV broadcasts more enjoyable. Nice profile piece…great highlights.

  18. Michael Dwyer
    at 10:54 am on February 3, 2010

    Hudson can be annoying at times, but it’s not fair to compare him to Motson or Rae (Andy Gray is a grump and Tommy Smythe knows little about the game–he’s made his bones on his accent alone). Motson and Rae are calling games in cultures where the joy and beauty of the sport are something people understand (though much of the joy has been beaten out of/ sold off from English football). Hudson is important to American soccer because he translates the excitement and beauty of the game–much like Walton, who just *loves* basketball more than any other announcer faithfully pounding the superstar narrative du jour.

    That passion and enthusiasm might come across as hyperbole at times, but as a soccer culture the US needs a good dose of it. So much of the soccer culture is overmanaged and stilted. It lacks the spirit that Hudson indulges in–perhaps overly so. But maybe he’s just making up for the rest of us.

  19. Brian
    at 2:47 pm on February 3, 2010

    If MLS had an ounce of common sense, they would pay whatever it took to get him on ESPN or FSC broadcasts of the league. There is no announcer even close to bringing the excitement he brings to broadcasts. If you want someone to make your telecasts stand out, to transmit the passion the sport can bring (something which the quality on the field often doesn’t do), then he’s your man.

    He’s loads better than Christopher “an open header from 2 yards out is a ‘world class’ goal” Sullivan or Brian “I must get paid by the word because I never shut up” Dunseth or even the sainted Andy “fashionably cantankerous” Gray or Eric “cynical chic” Wynalda… these guys think it’s all about showing how smart they are or name dropping their soccer connections.There’s a reason no one likes Tim McCarver or Billy Packer in other sports. What makes soccer fans different is their passion. Soccer at its best is a beautiful art, not just a staid science. Hudson reflects all that.

  20. Mike
    at 3:28 pm on February 3, 2010

    Brian, I have to disagree. MLS can simply NOT AFFORD to have Ray Hudson anywhere near their broadcasts. The reason is exactly because of his style. MLS is trying to look more and more legitimate.

    I completely understand the reasoning behind their move of Derek Rae to Scotland to bolster the new ESPN presence there with the SPL. However, if ESPN is smart, they will bring Derek back across the pond to cover not only the World Cup, but also the MLS season outside of the European calendar. You might find Tommy a bit annoying, but Derek and Tommy as a pair bring an absolute legitimacy to the broadcast. Derek’s knowledge and insight commands respect (Why do you think ESPN hired Martin Tyler?), and Tommy brings the light-hearted side.

    I think a plague for the MLS (in addition to limited national broadcast itself) is the fact that they insist on using American announcers right now for the coverage, and quite frankly the Harkeses and Wynaldas of the world are not that good. JP Dellacamara is tolerable, but for MLS only. I would much prefer Derek and Tommy calling the US world cup ties. Frankly after 5 years of broadcasting at college level I think I could do a better than any of the ex-USMNTers that ESPN has tried.

    The key to take away here is that Hudson’s style is far too over the top and would simply be laughed at by many who would tune into the broadcast, further promoting the ridiculous notion that the MLS is a joke league.

  21. Troy
    at 3:51 pm on February 3, 2010

    Great piece, Kaelan. A sport poet, he is: strolling around…like smoke off a cigarette. You’re both brilliant.

  22. Lloyd Estate
    at 6:28 pm on February 3, 2010

    Hudson is Picasso with bells on! Qualty writing about my families favorite commentator. I know of so many people like my own wife,son and daughter who,unless Ray Hudson is calling the game,they are not interested. He is indeed a unique talent who has enchanted us with his passion and obtuse verbal palate….a national treasure.

  23. Jon
    at 9:29 pm on February 3, 2010

    While I enjoyed how well this article was written, I must say that the combination of awful audio, plus Hudson’s style ruin GolTv games for me. I just can’t watch ‘em for more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time. As much respect as his resume demands, his commentary is too over-the-top for such a tactical, nuanced game, and adds nothing significant to the fixtures he calls. Every one is like a three-way competition for the viewers’ attention. And don’t even get me started on Tommy Smyth. I often wonder if he’s ever watched anything but Man Utd. archival tapes and Sunday Pub Leagues. I miss the days of Martin Tyler and Andy Gray. Their commentating was always truly meaningful, informed, clever, nuanced, fluid. The attitude that a commentator must be saying something every second he/she is on the air is totally American and totally obnoxious. Every performance has a life of its own, and a good conductor knows when to stop forcing the music forward and let it move and breathe and tell a story by itself.

  24. MANO
    at 4:38 pm on February 13, 2010

    Ray Hudson rocks!!!
    Man,there are some real tight asses here! What a GREAT piece James,a treat to read and a kick to listen to. For a minnow sport in this country, Hudson keeps anyone who isn’t a Euro snob,totally engaged and he hooks people into a game the way NO ONE else does…It’s called entertainment,it’s sports and live tv and Hudsons delivery is special. Don’t compare this guy to drones like the usual suspects named beforehand!
    Picasso indeed and the others are paint by numbers!
    Shine on Ray,ya crazy bastard!!

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  26. Duncan
    at 4:35 pm on April 9, 2010

    Just started paying attention to our Raymond yesterday when he emphatically and succinctly labeled Cardozo of Benfica a “big girl’s blouse” for his theatrical ambitions in the Liverpool penalty area.

    When football’s on in my house in future, God take a pew …

    PURE MAGICCCC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  27. Duncan
    at 5:13 pm on April 9, 2010

    …. sweet as a nut!

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