Soccer coverage is filled to the brim with ex-players dabbling in punditry. Once they’ve hung up their boots, stars are usually inundated with requests to voice the knowledge that they’ve acquired throughout their careers to the millions of people watching at home.
The run-of-the mill pundit simply rehashes tepid opinions and throws in an anecdote from his playing days. The pundit worth your attention goes the extra mile to provide unique and forthright views in a personal, passionate and, most importantly, entertaining fashion.
Here are 10 such pundits, and why they are worth your time.
1. Gary Neville (Sky Sports)
Reinvigorated the role, proving that footballers can be intelligent beasts after all
Despised by everyone who wasn’t a Red Devil as a player, Gary Neville surprised everyone with his forthright, unique and insightful look at the game when he made his debut as a Sky Sports pundit back in 2011.
Early in Neville’s media career, it was his precise analysis of a Stoke City goal from a corner-kick at Upton Park that proved he was a cut above the rest. In just 3 minutes and 11 seconds Neville elegantly dissected how the movement of Glenn Whelan, Robert Huth, Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam led to Jonathan Walters’ strike in a way that his peers would have either simply glossed over or missed entirely.
Well-researched without coming across as a know-it-all, Neville manages to be both entertaining and passionate, while his colloquial Northern drawl makes his points seem obvious after the fact.
2. Jamie Carragher (Sky Sports)
One half of the most unlikely bro-mance in world soccer
When Liverpool’s title pursuit finally deflated last May at Selhurst Park you can imagine that Jamie Carragher would have simply wanted to hide away from the viewing public, returned home and be cradled by his wife as she sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” until he fell asleep.
Instead the Anfield icon pulled no punches as he publically crucified those responsible for the errors that cost his beloved side the title in front of millions of viewers in the same manner that he’d probably have done in the changing room when he was still playing.
His public shellacking of Simon Mignolet, Ibrahim Sakho and Martin Skrtel, each of whom he decreed lacked the presence and intelligence to marshal a stricken defense under constant attacking bombardment, highlighted why Liverpool had failed to claim their first league title in 24 years, and the passion that rippled throughout his voice only helped to highlight his points and arguments.
On Monday Night Football “Carra” provides the perfect yin to Neville’s yang, and his outspoken views on Paul Scholes’ reputation (he thinks he’s overrated) and goalkeepers (he thinks, for the most part, that they’re useless) have proven that when he goes against the grain he does it with credence rather than for attention.
3. Gary Lineker (BBC and NBC)
The lovable optimist
When it comes to the England national team there probably isn’t a more patriotic ex-player out there than Gary Lineker. But he’s never one to let his passion dictate his thoughts, always managing to take a step-back to provide detailed analysis that looks to be hopeful as well as honest.
His recent video blogs from the 2014 World Cup saw Lineker trying to do the impossible; find joy in England’s showing in Brazil. Lineker highlighted the fact that Hodgson’s boys had exceled with their ball-retention stats and also noted that a bevy of young players had been given an important run-out at soccer’s biggest event before ultimately admitting that Hodgson had simply got his tactics all wrong. While this didn’t erase the fact that England had been a shambles it was a glimmer of hope in a dark summer for Blighty’s lovers of the beautiful game.
Lineker, who hosts BBC’s Match Of The Day and appears on NBC’s soccer coverage, rarely gets the opportunity to voice these opinions on the British show, but in the US he has managed to cross this divide and in the process he’s shown just how funny, eloquent and borderline poetic he can be.
While he might not be as commanding or abrasive as others he always tries to look at the game differently, plus he never forgets to bring in his fellow analysts for their views too.
His affable tone means that you can’t help but be charmed by his thoughts, while even his ghastly jokes help to enhance his loveable, fatherly aura. Doesn’t mean that you have to laugh at them though.
4. Lee Dixon (NBC)
An underrated team player
For some reason, soccer can be an immensely morose subject. Of course, it really shouldn’t be, as it’s a game designed to entertain the masses, but as it’s turned more and more into a business, and the ramifications of defeat have intensified, pundits have been forced to address on-field mistakes as if they’ve led to a homicide.
Praise the heavens for Lee Dixon then, who simply emanates warmness. There’s something delightfully jovial about the former Arsenal full-back, who deserves a hearty slap on the back for not being afraid to make himself the butt of the joke and for resisting the urge to awkwardly replicate locker room banter in front of the millions of people watching at home.
Even after England’s horrific start to the 2010 World Cup Dixon managed to bring a dose of relief to the BBC’s coverage of the game, despite the fact that his fellow pundits, Alan Shearer and Alan Hansen, insisted on addressing their draw against the USA with the same inclination that’s usually reserved for a eulogy.
Now plying his trade for both NBC and ITV, Dixon’s calm yet contemplative demeanour, which sees him patiently wait to voice his thoughts rather than petulantly interrupting, means that he adds a nice balance to any line-up he’s on, while he’s also adept enough to excel as either a co-commentator or panellist.
Still, nothing he ever says will be as funny as this 30-yard lobbed own-goal past David Seaman in 1991. Eat your heart out Ronaldinho.
5. Graeme Souness (Sky Sports)
As biting as a pundit as he was as a player
Who doesn’t love Francesco Totti? He possesses the debonair flair of a 1930’s movie star, the fiery passion of a lioness defending her cubs and is as loyal as patience on a monument. Plus, when he goes about his business, he’s as cool as a fridge freezer in the artic.
There’s just one problem; Graeme Souness doesn’t like him. If it were any other pundit you could instantly disregard his opinion as poppycock, but the Liverpool legend commands so much respect that you can’t help but listen to his thoughts.
Souness has in the past stated that if Totti was a “world-class player” he’d have moved on to a better club by now – a demonstrative quip that is so demeaning it instantly insults Roma’s golden boy as well as the Italian side in one fail swoop. He might as well have urinated on a pizza. What made this point even more remarkable was that it came after Totti had inspired a Champions League comeback too.
The thing is you can’t disagree with his assessment, and Souness was able to explain just why Totti doesn’t deserve his acclaim in the calm and calculated manner of an assassin, even going as far as to quip that he’d become pudgy in the twilight of his career. Ouch.
Souness’ ability to immediately get to his point and sum up his thoughts in an engaging and compelling fashion deserve praise, as does the fact that he completes the task that almost every other pundit instantly forgoes when on air: listening.
6. Taylor Twellman (ESPN)
Bona-fide nice guy and great source for breaking transfer news
In 2010 Taylor Twellman made a heart-breaking decision that had been building for 24 months; he retired from professional soccer.
A serious concussion against Los Angeles Galaxy had left Twellman unable to complete tasks that any athlete would usually lap up with fervor. But rather than sitting in pity for himself, Twellan instead decided to talk at length about the subject in an attempt to shine more light on the experience of athletes with concussions, an experience which has been mirrored by hundreds of other individuals across a myriad of sports.
It just so happens that Twellman does this in a sincere and objective manner that he has progressively transferred to his punditry work on the beautiful game.
He covers MLS and the US national team with the same passion and vigour that his peers usually reserve for more esteemed European leagues, while he also has an intimate knowledge of each team in the Eastern and Western Conference and is a great source for breaking transfer and team news too.
It also helps that he comes across as a bona-fide nice guy.
7. Roy Keane (ITV)
Blunt but persuasive
Old Trafford, March 2013. Nani’s controversial red-card has helped to swing the Champions League contest in favor of Real Madrid, who ultimately run out 2-1 winners. Everyone associated with Manchester United is apoplectic with the decision; all except for a certain ex-captain whose tiff with a certain knighted Scot continuously breaks the heart of every Red Devil devotee.
Keane was the only man inside ITV’s studios who believed Nani deserved to be sent off, while Lee Dixon, Gareth Southgate and Adrian Chiles decreed that United had been unjustly punished.
Keane insisted that the Portuguese winger’s tackle was “dangerous play,” and as he ferociously argued his point, stating that Nani should have been aware of other players on the pitch while also praising the referee for taking his time to make the decision, you could almost audibly hear the Irishman winning over his fellow pundits.
Keane’s delivery is so blunt that it’s almost comical, while the fact that he takes every player on the same merit, forgetting about their reputation and medals, and goes out of his way not to praise them for doing their jobs is hugely refreshing. It probably explains why he exceled as a player/failed as a manager.
8. Roberto Martinez (BBC)
Charming yet authoritative. In his second language.
Roberto Martinez has just listened to Alexi Lalas and Michael Ballack’s views after England’s opening Euro 2012 draw with France, and he’s about to blow them both out of the water.
The mild-mannered yet authoritative Spaniard, who at the time managed Wigan Athletic, instantly showcased his refreshingly modern voice on the game to both back-up Roy Hodgson’s game-plan while also slyly insulting him at the same time by admitting he wouldn’t want to play in such a style. He even added further remarks on France’s unbalanced yet still exciting approach for good measure too.
As, arguably, the most promising young manager in the world of soccer (he’s now at Everton) it’s no surprise that Martinez takes a technical look at matches, while he’s able to use his eagle-eye to reflect on every position and aspect of a contest in a thoroughly focused manner and pick-up on precise problems to a sides approach.
The fact that he manages to somehow make his observations without coming across as judgemental only adds to his charm.
It’s almost embarrassing that English is his second language. Imagine how insightful he is in Spanish.
9. Kyle Martino (NBC)
Blending the British and American soccer lexicon like a pro
If you live in America and adore soccer to such an extent that you can’t even look at a corner flag without weeping then you’re probably asked on a daily basis about the sport’s future in the country.
The problem is there isn’t an answer. Soccer is already here, it’s growing, and, as the World Cup proved, it is going to do so for the foreseeable future. Stop asking. It’s getting annoying.
Save a thought for Kyle Martino then. As an ex-pro who has now worked as a pundit for the last five years, he has probably been asked about soccer’s growth in the United States at least 6,743,984 times.
During the World Cup, while being interviewed on The Dan Patrick Show, Martino was once again confronted with this question, but he answered it as if it was the first time he’d ever heard it—delivering his thoughts in such a personable manner that you couldn’t help but develop a mini-man-crush on him, while he also showcased a knowledge that many people simply assumed he didn’t possess.
The ex-pro has managed to perfectly combine the US and English sporting lexicons while he’s also excitable yet level headed, and his growing confidence has only helped to boost his screen presence.
He’s made mistakes in the past (like infuriatingly being unable to pronounce Norwich for a whole year) but he can now hold his own on any panel and it’s time for him to build on his burgeoning reputation by making himself the definitive US-born soccer pundit.
10. Raphael Honigstein (ESPN, BT Sport, The Guardian)
The German with a wealth of knowledge
Proof that you don’t have to have played the game to provide knowledgeable coverage; the German journalist is an inspiration to every loud mouth drunk who has ever declared himself the next Brian Clough.
In fact, most of the time, he’s gone one better and shown that he is actually able to eclipse seasoned professionals’ views by avoiding sensationalist comments and then backing up his well-honed views with extensively researched statistics.
During the nadir of Wayne Rooney’s career, Honingstein showcased his stellar credentials during a chat about the striker’s legacy, a topic that almost every soccer fan was having at the time, by providing cut-throat and conclusive analysis that highlighted why his dire international and big-game performances will ultimately hinder his reputation. He also managed to squeeze in a sly dig at Sir Alex Ferguson for not getting the best out of the Liverpudlian’s plethora of talents—all while other pundits simply danced around or re-hashed tiresome opinions and made obvious gags about his income and appearance.
Genuinely witty, insatiably knowledgeable and reckless (he once gave his host, James Richardson, the w***** sign half-way through a live broadcast), Honigstein can chat at length about pretty much every major European league, can provide a tactical look at encounters and his photographic memory of players and their attributes is almost spooky.
Even though he turns up on half a dozen different shows and podcasts every week, as well as Tweeting profusely, his educated and informative thoughts never grow tiresome. The fact that he’s almost preposterously German is the closest I can come to a complaint.