As debates go, it wasn’t quite Lincoln versus Douglas, or even Frank the Tank versus James Carville, but Michael Ballack and Alexei Lalas went at it after England drew France on Monday.
Like the match itself, it was a contrast of styles. In one corner, the calm, cool, and collected Ballack, casually dismissing England and Roy Hodgson’s stodgy tactics. In the other, the exuberant and excitable Alexi Lalas, offering wild praise for the same.
Ballack has been sensational as part of ESPN’s comprehensive Euro 2012 coverage. Like the captain he was, Ballack exudes confidence. That self-assuredness is all the more impressive considering he is speaking English among native speakers such as Lalas and Bob Ley. He speaks with only a slight accent that is charming rather than distracting, unlike Brad Friedel’s bizarre amalgamation.
Providing studio commentary is not a particularly difficult job, but his confidence and charisma make him a natural. He can engage in light banter, like when he made allusion to his communist East German upbringing and when he teased Lalas and American soccer by heartily endorsing Giuseppe Rossi’s spurning of the U.S. for Italy.
He can also be authoritative, like when he shook his head in dismay at what he felt was England’s negative football. Like a father reading his son’s report card, he wondered aloud with both disappointment and wistfulness in his voice, “Is this the way to play football in the future?”
I, like the exuberant Lalas, disagreed. There is a rugged beauty in seeing a team like England, or Chelsea a month ago, make like the Thames Barrier and absorb wave after wave. But standing with, or against, Ballack is not the point. Ballack, in providing insouciantly honest analysis over bland generalities, makes ESPN’s analysis must-see TV.