The veteran broadcaster talks Indian football, VAR, covering 10 World Cups and much more in a candid conversation with Khel Now.
As fans of the beautiful game, we have all been witness to those iconic moments that have deepened our love for the sport over the years. Whether it’s a trademark Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick, or a mesmerizing run by Lionel Messi, we all have our favourites. There are also those moments that have re-defined the sport as we know it. Whether it is Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on Marco Materazzi in the final of the FIFA World Cup in 2006, or Andres Iniesta’s wonder-goal to seal the title for Spain at the same tournament four years later, we all have our picks. But, have you ever thought that in football as in any other sport, these moments that have become part of folklore belong as much to the broadcaster who calls the action, as they do to the athlete who creates the magic? It certainly rings true.
Over the years, sports broadcasting has given us the pleasure of enjoying the play in the company of many famous and familiar commentators. These are the men and women who add theatrics to the action through their voices alone. In doing so, they bring the drama from the stadium into our living rooms, with a magical note. At the very top echelons of this select group is the veteran broadcaster and commentator John Helm.
A veteran of 10 FIFA World Cups and countless other major tournaments, broadcaster and football commentator John Helm
At 76, Helm is still going strong and indeed, his desire to be behind the microphone for the biggest of moments remains as undiminished as ever. With nearly six decades of work in the media, the Englishman has been a familiar voice at almost every major sporting tournament you can think of. The FIFA World Cup, the European Championships, the UEFA Champions League, the Olympics, he’s been there and done it all. Closer to home, Helm admittedly enjoys coming to India and has been part of I-League broadcasts from time-to-time. Remarkably, he’s now in his fifth straight year as part of the coverage crew for the Indian Super League (ISL). Not surprisingly, when the opportunity presented itself to meet the “man behind the voice,” Khel Now’s Senior Content Editor Mrunal Nakashe and Mumbai Correspondent Sabin Castelino jumped at the chance.
As someone who has experienced every ISL season till date closely, Helm has seen the league grow from the ground up. Now, as the cash-rich competition marks its fifth campaign, we started off by asking for his assessment of its impact. While the analyst agreed that there was scepticism about the league in some quarters in its early years, he stood firm of the opinion that the fledgeling initiative is putting Indian football on the world map.
“I come from England and if I come to India, people were always going to say, “Oh you are going to watch cricket” and I’d reply, “No! I am going to watch football,” or I can say, “Oh! You have not heard about the Indian Super League?” And because I can tell them some of the players, stadiums you have here, I think awareness around the world has grown about Indian football and it is the ISL that has managed to achieve that,” he explained providing an example.
Helm opines that the ISL is putting Indian football on the world map
Along with the Indian Super league, the Chinese Super League and America’s Major League Soccer are the two other high-profile leagues from emerging football markets. When asked to compare the ISL with its two senior peers, Helm struck a note of cautious optimism. He stated that he’s greatly encouraged by the Indian clubs’ move away from marquee superstars well past their prime, pointing out that “the quality of the players that are coming in from Serbia, Croatia and other countries around Europe – it’s probably better and slightly younger,” which according to him has aided in an increase in the league’s quality.
He further added, “What has to happen to India next is to get into a World Cup final. It would be absolutely fantastic and if they do, it would largely be down to the ISL having a big impact.” Whilst the road remains a long one, the ace broadcaster was keen to underline that things are certainly heading in the right direction.
Drawing on the debate about the number of spots for Indians and foreigners in the starting lineups of ISL franchises, Helm expressed his view that the league had finally found the right balance between the need to provide exposure to Indian youngsters and the necessity to attract quality foreign talent, with its prevalent 6-5 formula. He also highlighted the fact that many clubs were now fielding more than the required number of six Indian players at any time, which is a welcome development.
The conversation moved on to the nuances of his work and we asked what it takes to be a good commentator? “I’m not going to pass it on to anybody (laughs). I’m going to keep going,” he began with a smile. But, soon it was an open secret. “I’d say that anybody who wants to be a commentator should just be themselves,” he asserted, before proceeding to elaborate on the task at hand, “For a commentator, you’ve got to be accurate, as accurate as possible. You have got to try to beat yourself and put your personality across and also I will say that you have to familiarize yourself with your audience. You are in the entertainment industry and therefore, you must entertain and communicate and try to portray what is going on.”
Expanding on the subject, he laid particular emphasis on the importance of getting the pronunciation of names right. “I believe the players want us to get the name right. I like people to get my name right. So therefore, I owe it to the player to get his name right.”
The FIFA U-17 World Cup which India hosted last year is seen by many as a watershed moment in the development of the country’s football. It’s a view that the broadcaster shares. “I thought it had a massive impact in two or three ways,” he started before continuing, “One, it proved that India can host a major tournament. A lot of people would have asked questions before. If you would have said this to me 10 years before, when I came to cover I-League games, I would have never believed that India could have done it. India’s infrastructure has improved so rapidly. So, now you know that you can do it. I think people will be hopeful that India will stage the U-20 World Cup (next). It tends to happen this way.”
The Englishman feels hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup was massive for Indian football
“You are a superpower. India and China have got to be prospective candidates for the Women’s World Cup and things like that. There are so many global events now. I was here for the Commonwealth Games, not too long ago. As it went good, you enhanced the possibilities to bring more tournaments to India,” he professed elaborating on the country’s potential to host more major events such as the U-17 extravaganza.
Commenting on the global debate surrounding the pros and cons of the Video Assistant Referee or VAR technology, Helm was firm in stating that regardless of the dissenting opinions, the technology was here to stay. He also asserted that given the increasingly high stakes, football like other sports stands to benefit from such a mechanism of decision review.
Here’s the second instalment of our two-part conversation with seasoned commentator and broadcaster John Helm
A veteran of 10 World Cups, the Englishman opined that the advent of the internet had transformed the tournament’s outreach and appeal to the nooks and corners of the globe. He expressed a staunch support for the recent decision to expand the competition to include 48 teams, whilst also refuting the notion that the move amounts to diluting the quality of football’s global showpiece.
Making the case for the expansion he explained, “I think it is good because countries like Iceland reached the World Cup in Russia. What if India could do something similar? I think it is good because the game is expanding so much. I was in Nicaragua this year, I have been in Botswana. The football is good. It’s of a high standard.” He further added, “People will be shocked, like when Iceland beat England in the Euros, or when Germany crashed out in Russia. We have to accept that the ‘supposedly’ lesser nations are improving and that’s for the good of the game. I think other people raise their levels to their best levels. I think the quality will improve.”
Helm says the expansion of the World Cup is reflective of football’s global growth
Citing the example of Leicester City’s incredible Premier League title success in 2015-16, the Englishman stressed that underdogs must be given the chance to showcase their talents against more established teams at regional and global events in order to increase the depth and competitiveness of the sport.
Asked to pick the one game he considers himself fortunate to have worked on Helm went all the back to the 1982 World Cup held in Spain and the group stage clash between Brazil and Scotland. It was a contest the Samba Boys won 4-1. “They were the greatest team ever. The names were big and they were wonderful to watch. Obviously, as a commentator, I should be unbiased. I could have wept when they lost to Italy because they should have won the World Cup. They were so entertaining and their football was absolutely exhilarating,” he vividly recollected, as the lifelong Bradford (Park Avenue) AFC fan understandably marvelled about a Brazil team that featured greats like Zico, Falcao and Sokratis amongst others.
To cap off the conversation we went back to the beginning as we asked the experienced man behind the microphone, what first attracted him to a career in journalism? Reflecting on how it all started he reminisced, “Apparently when I was a tiny little boy, five, I used to dribble a tennis ball on the way to school. My school was about half a mile away and I used to commentate and I commentated on cricket matches. So, I think I was destined for this career.”
Well, as the man himself says, we can only guess that some things are just meant to be. Whatever the case may be, if Helm’s career in sports broadcasting was aligned in the stars, we the fans are certainly richer for it.