Off the ball

The call of the commentator

Jacqui Oatley commentates for the BBC
© Getty Images

They see all, they hear all. They are charged with the responsibility of adding colour to the beautiful game as we watch the drama unfold. Each of them have crafted their own unique style, from the considered and minimalist to the dramatic and effusive.

Over the years they have shared our joys, our sorrows, our hopes and frustrations. They’ve been there during our highest highs and our lowest lows. They have formed part of the soundtrack of our lives; their voices and descriptions etched on our memories. Welcome to the world of the football commentator.

In this exclusive piece, spoke to four broadcasters, each from a different country to find out just what makes them tick and listen to their remarkable stories.

There’s Luis Omar Tapia who calls games in Mexico and the US, beginning each with what has become a famous phrase. Then there’s Matias Prats III, a young man following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father in Spain. We also hear from the well-travelled German broadcaster Bela Rethy, who is using his fame to try and bring about a fairer society, while Jacqui Oatley, the first female voice on the BBC’s Match of the Day, completes our line-up.

The catchphrase
One of the leading lights in the CONCACAF region is 52-year-old Chilean Luis Omar Tapia, known for his kick-off catchphrase: “¡Comienzan 90 minutos del deporte más hermoso del mundo!” (“It’s the beginning of 90 minutes of the world’s most beautiful sport.”) Used for over 20 years, the phrase follows the commentator wherever he goes.

“I have been with my family, wife or co-workers having dinner and suddenly, someone from the other side of the restaurant shouts it,” he told "But it doesn't bother me at all.

“The phrase came from my grandfather Alamiro. He used to wake me up when I was due to play football saying ‘Come on little boy, it’s Sunday and you have to play the most beautiful sport in the world.’ Those things stick with you, I adapted it slightly and I’ve used it ever since.

“I truly believe the sentiment. You have the magic, the anticipation and the fact that one moment can change an entire match. With all due respect, I don’t think that’s true of other sports.”

The successor
Across the Atlantic Ocean, another commentator with his grandfather to thank is 30-year-old Matias Prats, the third of that name to be involved in broadcasting. His grandfather was the voice on Spanish TV and radio for football during the 1950s and 1960s, covering numerous international matches and each of Real Madrid’s five consecutive European Cup successes between 1956 and 1960.

“He was a pioneer, an innovator and has been a reference point for many generations,” explained his grandson, now a regular commentator himself for Telecinco and Cuatro. “I can say this because I had to study him when taking journalism class at University! He took risks and began to use certain expressions, which are still popular today. I’m extremely proud of that.

“Sometimes when I’m travelling with my dad in the car, we listen to audio recordings of my grandpa’s commentary. It’s amazing to enjoy his perfect diction and vocabulary.”

Matias’s father, another Matias, is a newsreader for Antena 3, which brought an added burden to the youngest family member when he started out as a journalist.

“At first it was difficult to share the same name as them, but now I find it more of a responsibility than a pressure,” he continued. “I don’t have their talent, but I try to compensate it with passion, dedication and effort. There’s no point in trying to compete with grandpa – he’s out of reach, but my father is a great example and support.

“My father learned a lot from grandpa, as well as through his own hard work. He’s passed those lessons and the love of journalism on to me. What they both recommended is to show respect and dedication to the profession. It’s a vocation.”

The ambassador
Another commentator who takes the burden of responsibility seriously is ZDF commentator Bela Rethy, ambassador of a German initiative called 'Respect, no space for racism.'

“You have the ability to draw attention to social issues when you speak in front of so many people and have a reputation,” he said. “Two of the greatest diseases in society worldwide are intolerance and xenophobia. There is almost nothing that disgusts me personally more as this attitude. Therefore, it’s very important for me to use my profile in this way – and football has the power to transform things.”

Rethy’s background probably provided the reasoning behind his cultural endeavours. He was born in Vienna to Hungarian parents, who were forced to flee their country in the midst of the Revolution. However, just weeks after his birth, the family moved to Brazil. Rethy grew up in Sao Paulo before moving to Germany when he was 12 years old, and have remained there ever since. As a result he speaks German, Hungarian and Portuguese, and has added English, French and Spanish to that list.

“I have commentated on a game in Portuguese, but it was more of a gimmick,” he smiled. “I was brought in as a co-commentator for a Germany game at Mexico 1986 by a small private radio station who were not even in the stadium, but broadcasting from a hotel room. They had a sound engineer who looped in a stadium atmosphere, while I was wearing a swimming costume while sitting on the bed and the fee was a bottle of tequila! It was great fun!”

The trailblazerJust as Rethy will not forget that experience, a 1-1 draw between Fulham and Blackburn Rovers will be a game which will live forever in the memory of Jacqui Oatley. After all, this marked the first occasion that the BBC’s iconic programme ‘Match of the Day,’ then in its 43rd year, featured the voice of a female commentator.

“It was a great experience and an honour. I knew there was going to be raised eyebrows and I knew that there would be some people making comments, but I hoped that it would be after the event. I was just unfortunate that it made a national newspaper on the Tuesday before the game - and it snowballed from there, so by the Friday the ‘story’ was on the front pages and back pages. All I wanted was to do my prep and do the best possible job on the commentary itself, but my phone just didn’t stop.”

Oatley’s focus was not helped by a former Premier League manager declaring himself to be “totally against it”, believing her to have never “kicked a ball in her life.” He was wrong. She was a talented amateur footballer until the age of 27, when she sustained a serious knee injury which ended her career. After that, she dedicated her professional life to journalism, sleeping on friends' floors in search of her big break while becoming a qualified coach in the process.

“If I’ve done anything to make things easier for the next person, I’m happy about that,” she continued. “I didn’t want to take all that pressure for nothing. Being the first is a burden, it was a story. But hopefully in the future a female commentator broadcasting won’t be such an issue.”

The futureAnd what of those hoping to follow in the footsteps of Tapia, Prats, Rethy and Oatley?

“You don’t become a commentator without putting in an awful lot of hard work,” said Oatley. “Anyone who wants to do it should not expect any favours, constantly build up their contact list, be prepared to start at the bottom, work seven days a week, relocate and work for nothing! In your spare time – you have practice, get honest feedback, shadow professionals. But being determined and getting experience is key.”

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