“Passionate” is an adjective frequently used to describe Fox Sports commentator Gus Johnson. “Bombastic” is another. But a less-polite way of putting is this: When the big moment hits, Gus Johnson is nothing short of an absolute, blazing, whack-a-doo nutjob.
He breaks into the kind of rabid hysterics that drive sound engineers nuts and remind the jaded masses Right! Sports are amazing! It’s how he made his name in broadcasting – his March Madness calls have become the stuff of legend – and why Fox threw him into the soccer hot seat about a year ago, charging him with a heavy responsibility in the process: to give the world’s game its first distinctly American voice.
That didn’t sit particularly well with soccer fans used to the silky style of English commentators like Martin Tyler or Ian Darke (the purists undoubtedly use a different set of adjectives to describe Johnson), and early on, he didn’t do much to silence his detractors. But a year into the gig, Gus has found his legs, delivering rolling match commentaries that crescendo in a trademarked Johnsonian eruption every time the ball hits the back of the net.
On Saturday, he’ll call the final of Europe’s most prestigious tournament, the Champions League, which sets the stage for next month’s World Cup in Brazil. And with Fox having scooped up the rights to the next two World Cups, you can bet Johnson’s going to be the man calling the big games in 2018 and 2022, whether soccer snobs like it or not.
As he wraps up his first year behind the mic, Rolling Stone spoke with Johnson about his greatest calls, each delivered in that passionate, bombastic, insert-your-favorite-adjective-here style he’s become famous for.
“The tactics were the key in that scenario. Arsène Wenger had two subs left. He brought on Rosický as well as Jack Wilshere. They were fresh, and everybody on the pitch was exhausted, especially those Hull players. Ramsey in that first period of extra time had two good looks at goal, but when Rosický and Wilshere as well as Yaya Sanogo came in, they just changed the tempo of the game and you saw the quality.”
“MANCHESTER UNITED CAN START TO BELIEVE!”
“Vidić is the captain, playing his final season at Manchester United. Nobody really gave United a chance to defeat the European Champions, with their new manager in Pep Guardiola, their focus on possession and the talent on that side … [they’re] just a star-studded team. United were also playing without Robin Van Persie, so they were undermanned. Old Trafford erupted in jubilation. They felt they were finally having some great luck. They took a one-nil lead. They thought the game was theirs.”
“I guess what I’m trying to work on with my soccer broadcast, now that I’m pretty comfortable with the basics, is seeing things ahead of time. So this goal was a treat for me. The ball was on the far side of the field, and they switched sides and just laid it up for Patrice Evra perfectly. He blasted the top shelf, right corner, and he got everything on that strike. There was no way Neuer was going to be able to stop that from going in. Beautiful teamwork, the fluidness of that play in particular stood out in the match. Evra, one of the veterans of the club, stepped up when he needed to. It was just a great goal. He got it all.”
“CROSSED INSIIIIDE! AND THEY ANSWER!”
“I thought that Manchester United, because they were in such a good spirit, may have relaxed a bit, or maybe it was just the fear had distilled in Bayern, because they opened up. It was almost as if they willed that ball in the net. Mandžukić leveled it, and he’s a big presence in there. You back a tiger into the corner and he’s going to come out fighting, and that’s what happened.”
“Sometimes identification is tough. It’s hard to see guys. [Eddie Johnson] comes in with this bleached blond hair and that beautiful brown skin, and immediately we knew who he was. Even better, his last name is Johnson. He comes on and 14 seconds later, he’s heading the ball through. The crowd was great, everybody erupted. And the United States went on to win 5-1, so they dominated. Eddie was one of the stars of that day.”
“HEADED! AND IN AGAIN!”
“Well, first of all, Sergio Ramos, he’s a central defender and not known as a goal scorer. Cristiano Ronaldo, who is the best player in the world, who has such great athleticism – look at how high he gets up – he’s the perfect decoy. Everyone’s concerned with what he’s going to do. Ramos just sneaked in there twice. He was precise, and he headed the second one home for a brace. That was a remarkable thing to see from a man who isn’t known for scoring a bunch of goals.”
“BEN WATSON! OFF THE BENCH! WHAT A GOAL!”
“Ninety-first minute. It was amazing. Watson came in, again, off the bench. He was battling injury, and he timed his run perfectly to the near post and managed to flick it into the net. The euphoria from the Wigan supporters was great to see. It was just a beautiful feeling inside the building when they won. I was a little lost in the moment, but at the same time aware. [The other commentator, who you can hear laughing] That’s Ian Wright. I don’t think he was laughing at me, or the moment. I think he was just delighted. This is the 91st minute, this redheaded kid comes of the bench, and now this kid is an FA Cup legend. That is a play they’ll run till the end of time.”