Legendary ESPN broadcaster Bob Ley describes his long history working in soccer and shares fantastic stories from his days with the New York Cosmos and covering multiple World Cups on the Planet Fútbol Podcast.
On the new episode of the Planet Fútbol podcast, SI.com interviews the legendary ESPN broadcaster Bob Ley about his long history with soccer, going back to working for the New York Cosmos and covering World Cups from 1982 to 2014.
Ley told some amazing stories in the interview, which can be listened to in full in the podcast console here. You can subscribe to and download the Planet Fútbol Podcast on iTunes. Recent guests include former U.S. men's national team standout Tony Sanneh, broadcaster Derek Rae, U.S. and Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen, RB Leipzig assistant and former New York Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch and Roma sporting director Monchi.
Here's a selection from the interview:
On how far back his soccer connection goes:
“North Jersey, at Bloomfield High School, where I was a student manager of the varsity soccer team. I was a senior in the fall 1971 season, and I really grew to love the sport there. We played in the old Big Ten conference in North Jersey. We had a hell of a team. Jim White was a great coach, and Kearny High School was part of our conference. Of course, we all know Kearny from John Harkes and Tab Ramos from that town, and Kearny and Harrison [home of Red Bull Arena] are right next to each other. So I grew up in that hotbed of soccer in North Jersey, and that's where my interest first began.”
On his work in the 1970s with the legendary New York Cosmos:
“I began working at the local cable system. We were televising events, and my boss said to me do you know soccer? I said yeah. It's easy enough to broadcast. I had never broadcast a soccer match in my life, but it's left to right, and I knew the game. And so we were doing soccer telecasts on the high school level with three color cameras and high-end production for its time in 1976 and 1977. And then a friend of mine who knew I was doing this, who was on the Cosmos beat for one of the local papers, said you know, Krikor Yepremian, who is the general manager of the Cosmos—who was the brother of Garo Yepremian, who threw the most infamous pass in Super Bowl history, many years earlier—Krikor Yepremian said they're looking for a public address announcer at Cosmos games.
Now this was the height of irony because I was a Cosmos season ticket holder in the ‘77 and ‘78 seasons. Section 134, Row 2, seats 9 and 10. I remember it well. You were two rows off the pitch. It was insane. Right on the 18-yard line, Carlos Alberto playing right in front of you and [Franz] Beckenbauer, you could reach out and touch them. So I went in and brought a tape of my soccer broadcasts and showed them I knew the game, and so for the ‘79 season I was the public address announcer at Giants Stadium for the Cosmos. Now they didn't go to Soccer Bowl that year, they got knocked out. Pelé had stopped playing two years earlier, but he was still making appearances, and you would announce him and Beckenbauer, and 80,000 people would cheer every word. You began to understand how Mussolini got the fever.”
On how he felt about SportsCenter anchors making fun of soccer for years, and why he thinks that was the case, which leads into a great story about the 2010 World Cup in South Africa:
“You look for the easy laugh, and it's not something you understand. When you saw it way back in the early years, of course soccer didn't help itself. The NASL folds. We were reduced to nothing for a while but indoor soccer, which is nice but is not really soccer as we know it. There is, and we both know this to be true, a huge element of soccer snobbery among soccer fans, who when they hear someone make fun of their sport do not react—and why should they?— generously. And it bothered the hell out of me. I felt like Che and Fidel in the hills in the late ‘50s just trying to run rear guard actions by getting highlights on. There's this thing called Champions League, we can get access to the highlights. This is an important transfer we ought to report.
It was around for a while. Eventually it became almost edict-like: This bleep will stop. But I think it stopped organically. Certainly it stopped for a while around the 2002 World Cup, when we got all the way to the quarterfinals. But in 2010, the effort for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, our company each year, I don't know if we still exactly do it, we enumerate four or five priorities. And it was rare that we actually took one event, and the 2010 World Cup was a company priority. I'll never work on anything more complex, more wide-ranging and more impactful than that, because I spent a total of about three months in that country over two years.
And I think everyone learned in the company, whether they were a believer or not, that this was an important moment, that it was a validation of modern-day South Africa, which still as you and I both know is bedeviled by horrible problems. But still it beat the alternative. And I think the 2010 World Cup was transformative. It was transformative for the sport’s profile in the United States. It was transformative for those of us who worked on it. I had an opportunity during the World Cup to interview Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And he was wearing a makarapa. A makarapa, for those who aren't familiar, is a miner's helmet which black South African fans would wear to matches, soccer being the black South African sport, rugby being traditionally the white South African sport. And the Archbishop walked into our interview in Cape Town wearing a Bafana Bafana jersey, the South African national jersey, and a makarapa.
And Bishop Tutu is of slight stature, maybe 5’1” or 5’2”, and so I said, ‘Archbishop, would it be possible for you to take off that makarapa so we can conduct the interview?’ But also in the course of that time, as we flew down to Cape Town to talk to him later in the group stage play, was one of the most incredible moments. When Mandela was imprisoned, he could have gotten out of prison at any point by making an accommodation with the white government. He chose not to and did not do that. He was on the inside. Archbishop Tutu was on the outside fighting for majority rule and then through apartheid. And his life was in danger at any given moment as the black Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. And of course this gentleman won the Nobel Peace Prize.
We're about to begin the interview, and he says, ‘Excuse me for a moment, would you mind if I led us all in a brief non-denominational prayer?’ And he asks me this, and what am I going to say except, ‘Certainly, sir.’ And there are about 15 of us in this room, and we're led in prayer by the Archbishop of Cape Town, who won the Nobel Peace Prize. It's like, whoa, you can't buy a ticket to a moment like that.”