Soccer | From the Spot

Soccer commentator turned dream into reality

by Dan Orlowitz

Foreigners living in Japan have few opportunities to introduce their favorite sports teams. For English teachers, it’s usually in front of a class of attentive elementary or junior high school students. For others, it’s an easy way to start a conversation at their local bar, especially while a Premier League match is on.

So when “Foot!” presenter Ben Mabley had the opportunity to share his local club Taunton Town (based in Taunton, England), who currently play in England’s seventh tier, with a television audience, he gladly made use of it.

“I thought, almost as a joke because obviously nobody cares about this, nobody in the U.K. even cares about this . . . But the reception to that from both people at (Japanese broadcaster) J Sports and viewers, was that people kind of liked the local touch,” Mabley, 36, told From the Spot, recounting how the team known as the Peacocks became a semiregular fixture on the Monday edition of “Foot!” which focuses on English soccer.

“We were able to go to the U.K. and film on location in Taunton in November 2017,” said Mabley. “That was superb because Taunton Town had never been the subject of a national TV feature in their own country. They’re rarely the subject of a local TV feature in their own country. To be able to make this for a foreign TV station was quite incredible.”

Mabley dreamed of being a soccer commentator from a young age, and his interest in Japan was piqued by his father’s work for several Japanese companies. After enrolling in a Japanese Studies course at Oxford University, Mabley found his way to Japan as a study abroad student at Osaka University of Foreign Studies, which later merged with Osaka University.

There he fell in love with Gamba Osaka, attending games as an active supporter and eventually writing his dissertation on the club’s community connections.

“It was the supporter culture and the club’s engagement with society that piqued my interest the most,” said Mabley. “The dissertation itself wasn’t just about supporters, it was about professional football clubs’ relationships with their local communities in both directions, with Gamba as a case study.”

After graduating back in England, Mabley found his way back to Japan in 2005. Despite struggling to gather interest in his dissertation from Gamba owner Panasonic, he did find his way into the electronics giant as a translator after passing the company’s entrance exam.

Mabley also continued to pursue his journalistic interests in soccer, writing for The Guardian as well as producing his own 10-minute podcast on the Japanese game. His tactical analyses for Goal.com eventually drew the attention of a producer at J Sports, who made an unexpected offer at the network’s end-of-season party in 2012.

“I went to Tokyo and I was thinking it’s my first chance to meet someone at J Sports, I’ve got to be on my best behavior, maybe I can get a job one day,” Mabley recalled. “And the producer was waiting for me and he said ‘You’re Ben? And I said ‘Yes?’ and he said ‘I’m going to go and get drunk pretty soon so I want to get this out of the way quickly, but will you be on our show next season?’ And that was my interview.”

While an overwhelming majority of soccer pundits and commentators on Japanese television are themselves former players or coaches, Mabley’s knowledge of British culture and society allows him to present an insider’s perspective to Japanese viewers.

“What I look to provide is zeitgeist,” he said. “I spend a lot of time immersing myself in British fandom, media, radio, podcasts, TV. I can present, from a reasonably solid view in terms of persuasiveness, what people in the U.K. are talking about.”

As one of the few foreigners regularly appearing on Japanese television, Mabley is well aware of how much gravity is often attached to his comments.

“I understood it, but it was a strange thing to get used to,” Mabley said. “This is a certain responsibility, because sometimes in Japan foreigners’ opinions can become generalized as being representative of their entire country. I never intend to speak on behalf of England, but I knew that was to some extent how it would be perceived.”

As soccer becomes increasingly interwoven with social issues, Mabley is challenged to provide context on topics such as racism in the Premier League to his viewers.

“If you don’t provide both historical and contemporary background to that, it can be dangerously easy for viewers to think ‘racism is a problem in England, it’s still a country of hooligans,’ as might have been the old stereotype.

“But that requires a lot of background explanation to make a clear point. It takes an effort to prepare in my own language, it can be quite challenging in a second language.”

Mabley’s confidence grew over the 2012-2013 season at “Foot!,” and for the 2014-2015 season he would be asked to join J Sports’ Premier League broadcasting team as a color commentator.

“I was nervous for the first 10 episodes of ‘Foot!’ and I was really nervous when I did my first commentaries because I didn’t know how to prepare, because I didn’t know what I was preparing for,” recalled Mabley. “It was something I’d always wanted to do, so the personal risk of it not going well felt huge.

“When you’re on screen you can gesture and point, and things get across even if what you’re saying isn’t perfect. But you don’t have that when you’re not on screen. If it’s just your voice, you’ve got to get out what you’re saying.”

“It was like spinning too many plates at once. Expressing myself, getting the facts out that I wanted, following the match, expressing my thoughts on the match — a surprisingly large number of things to think about at once.”

With the faith of his producers, Mabley reached his stride in his second year of commentary — the fabled 2015-2016 season in which minnows Leicester City stunned the world to win their first Premier League title.

“It was an absolute privilege to be able to frame that in the context of what it means to English football from an English perspective,” Mabley said. “(To be able to say) ‘this is how English people are stunned by what’s going on.’ “

As he begins his eighth season on “Foot!” and sixth in the broadcast booth — this year covering the Premier League and Champions League for DAZN and the Belgian first division for SkyPerfecTV — along with regular appearances in additional series on both networks, Mabley hopes to continue highlighting not only some of Europe’s biggest clubs, but some of its smallest underdogs.

“I don’t think that broadcasting the Premier League is about six teams, it’s about 20 teams. And 72 professional teams below them who want to go to the Premier League, and hundreds and thousands of teams below them who might do it as well,” Mabley said. “If I’m commentating on Burnley vs. Manchester City, Burnley are equally as important. I’ll do as much research on Burnley and watch as many of their games as I do City.”

That philosophy goes a long way toward explaining his role in making Taunton Town the only participants of the Southern League Premier Division South who can claim to enjoy a semiregular trickle of visitors from Japan.

“The good thing about a club of Taunton Town’s scale is that it impresses people in Japan, the depth of football in the U.K.,” Mabley said. “Teams in the seventh or eighth tier are still getting several hundred people paying to get in, and that illustrates that it is possible for every single town in the country to have a well-supported football team.”