The gripping saga earlier this week that made headlines across the soccer world concerned allegations of match-fixing, all of them tied to hundreds of games in Europe back to 2008.
Listen, we’re all for fixing soccer.
The 45-year-old Johnson, best known for his bombastic calls of college basketball during his CBS’ “March Madness” days but lately packaged as the headliner to Fox’s college football coverage, has a new kind of football prep work to kick around.
With Fox having recently won the TV rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, it made a bold statement this week in committing to Johnson as their rise-and-fire soccer voice in training.
His first major assignment comes Wednesday when he’ll actually be at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, calling Manchester United against Real Madrid in a Champions League Round of 16 match (Fox Soccer Channel, 11 a.m.). Then it’s to London for an Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich match in the Champions League on Feb. 19. Then a Premiere League game featuring Johnson’s new favorite team, Chelsea, against Manchester City on Feb. 24.
That all funnels into Johnson doing Fox’s coverage of the May 11 FA Cup final and May 25 Champions League final – on site, not from a studio somewhere in L.A.
What qualifies Johnson over any of the other U.S.-centric broadcasters who have tried and somewhat famously failed in their attempts to draw an American audience into the so-called “beautiful game,” especially when it involves the world stage and not just another MLS contest?
“I’m a professional broadcaster. Period. It’s what I do for a living,” he said Thursday from his home in New York.
But he’s smart enough to call himself a novice in the sport.
His training to date has been doing games for the MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes on radio, playing some pickup games at the park near his home, going to Europe for a few weeks last season to attend games, and calling practice matches with his new partner, former player Martin Tyler, as well as Cobi Jones and Eric Wynalda.
“I’ve got the whole world on my plate and can’t eat it all in one bite, so this will take some time,” Johnson cautioned.
Besides, it’s not like Fox was going to throw Joe Buck in to do this.
Too many before Johnson – including Dave O’Brien, Jack Edwards and Rob Stone – have endured the wrath of U.S. soccer die-hards who weigh the pros and cons of having an American-based broadcaster versus ones with more experience overseas.
Erudite sports-media websites like AwfulAnnouncing.com has said that this move is sure to be “one of the boldest, most polarizing, most talked about moves in sports broadcasting.”
It’s a risk-reward that Fox and its so-called attitude have no problem taking, as seen by previous decisions with NASCAR, the UFC and even their attempt at the NHL years ago.
“There’s a lot for me to learn from all those other men who had the courage to try something like this,” said Johnson. “I understand how difficult it is to attempt this. I could have jumped into this last year, but it wasn’t the right time. I need to find the rhythm.
“Maybe I’ll learn from those who maybe didn’t make mistakes, but were thrown in prematurely. That’s the lesson. I won’t allow that. The one thing I’ll know that I’ll bring is passion. That’s the least of my concerns. I’m passionate about just walking across the street in New York City.”
Fox Sports President Eric Shanks, who came up with Johnson as his test broadcaster in late 2011, told SI.com this week that Johnson “is not something that is temporary. This is something we are going to work at . . . Based on the radio games and the practice games Gus has done, I think this is going to work.”
Fox Soccer Channel general manager David Nathanson said that the year-and-a-half prep work that Johnson has already put in tells him “he respects how passionate and knowledgeable the soccer fan is, and while his education continues, he’s ready to lend his classic American voice to the world’s biggest sport.”
Johnson said the reaction he’s heard so far has been “pretty positive” but he won’t get bogged down in snap judgments of his work.
“Obviously, I’ll be nervous prior to kickoff, but when all is said and done, I’m a broadcaster who wants to call a big game, get out of my comfort zone, be in the moment. I feel the new energy and want to stretch myself. Learning can be a painful process, but I have a positive anxiety about it. I like that.”
Sounds like Johnson is ready for his soccer fix.