Kate Abdo is currently the face of two different American soccer broadcasts, heading both Fox’s Bundesliga coverage and Turner’s UEFA Champions League shows. The host’s path to the United States, though, has been pretty unique, with a starting point in Germany and a pit stop in her native United Kingdom on the way to the States. Speaking to Cartilage Free Captain, the multilingual Abdo talks her career, her passion for the sport, and Tottenham Hotspur in the present and the near future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CFC: You have spoken about how you accidentally ended up in broadcasting, but did continuing in sports come out of a love of them, particularly soccer?
KA: It definitely came from there. My parents are both sports teachers, so I grew up with that being a really big part of life. Their weekends and their evenings were often taken up coaching sports teams and that was something that I would have to tag along to a lot because that’s where they needed to be, and then my brother was on the football team and a bunch of different teams at school, so when I was still younger — he’s quite older than me — my mum would want to be watching those. Also, just growing up in the UK, football is such a part of popular culture that it just felt like it was always present. My mum and dad are big football fans themselves. My dad’s a big [Manchester] United fan, my mum’s a big Liverpool fan, so that rivalry was always present in home life as well, and it just feels like it’s always been part of me. [Author’s note: Abdo is a United fan, like her father.]
I did think I wanted to do something with sports. I often thought probably just because it was the only thing I knew, I thought I’ll do the same as my mum and dad. It felt like it would be working doing something I would enjoy. Then I got old enough to realize: “I don’t think teachers have a great time. I’m not sure they’re well paid enough and they have to deal with a lot of kids. There’s a lot of attitude. Maybe I’ll go a different route,” and that’s when I was thinking, “I like languages. Maybe that’s what I want to do. I want to travel. I’m interested in other cultures,” and so that was the direction I went.
Then when I ended up interning at this German TV station [Deutsche Welle], the first one I worked at, which worked in broadcasting different languages — it was kind of an international station. I was there because I wanted to be a translator and wanted to get experience in that, but they put me initially on the finance desk translating German texts about stocks and shares, and I was definitely massively out of my depth. I kept saying, “I think I’d be better suited on the football show. I can talk football. I understand that language, whereas the language of finance just was not me,” and so I got transferred to that football desk and worked on those shows and their sports content and that felt like a comfortable home and that was that was when the opportunity also arose to [go into] broadcasting when one of their sports broadcasters just fell off and walked out.
Are there differences in broadcasting in a language that isn’t the one you grew up speaking?
It’s definitely different because there’s definitely a level of consciousness, I think, that you just feel. I’m a perfectionist by nature anyway, so I always want it to sound right, and I think as well if you’ve got a good grasp of languages, you’re aware when you make mistakes. You hear them afterwards, and I kick myself about that. German grammar is relatively complicated, and I hear the mistakes sometimes after I’ve said it. I think you definitely can get in your head a little bit when you’re on tv in a way that you don’t just in passing conversation. I’ll still do jobs now where I do it in German or in French and that’s where I get the adrenaline rush because it makes anxious in a way that doing tv in English doesn’t, but also you get the enjoyment of having overcome a challenge.
When it comes to individual broadcasts, particularly for the Champions League, how do you prepare?
A lot of Googling, a lot of reading. The advantage for me, obviously, doing Champions League is that I can read the Spanish media, the German media, the French media. I can read enough in either Portuguese or Italian. I’m comfortable enough in those languages to do that, so I can definitely read the sports news because it’s interesting sometimes to see what the media in the country itself is saying. It’s a different representation to how we might be talking about one team and their progress, and often obviously a French media outlet is going to talk about the French teams in much more depth than I will find articles in an American or an English language media or website, so it’s a great resource for me and that’s something that definitely really helps, and that’s the majority of my prep. It’s reading around, trying to find out what I think the talking points are, trying to find out what I think of it.
I think that’s an important part of my role is to figure out where I think the show should go. What they bring you on board for is your understanding of the game, your editorial read of the game, and so I want to have strong ideas about that, too, so that I can go back and forth with the producer. We’ll put together an overall structure, and then just [work on] bringing the best out of the boys [analysts Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden, Tim Howard, and Steve Nash] when we get them as a group together and seeing where they want to go and what they feel differently about.
Do you take your colleagues at the desk and their preferences into consideration when putting together that structure?
For sure. I think part of my job, essentially, is to facilitate the people at the desk with me, or in Stu and Steve’s case in LA. My job is to make them look good and to give them opportunity to talk about the game in an intelligent way, which they are all very capable of. I think if you want that light hearted feel to a studio, it’s really important that I know who bounces well off who, I know what’s been said in the green room, who’s making fun of who for what, [and] to be able to draw those things out. I guess I feel a little bit like a fly on a wall. I just observe the boys and how they enjoy and interact with each other. I’ll watch them watching a game. I’ll see what they’re passionate about and I’ll try and tailor the way I lead that conversation to encompass those things, to give them the opportunity to talk about the stuff that they genuinely care about or the stuff that that’s going to illicit a natural or humorous reaction from them.
You watch a lot of soccer for work, but are there leagues or matches that you tune into for fun, or do you not have the time?
Obviously I watch Bundesliga with Fox as well because I host that for them and German soccer is always going to be close to my heart, I think, just because I spent so much time in Germany and I’ve been to so many games there. I’ll try to watch anything I can. I spent a long time going to Spanish soccer. I lived in Spain for four years. I used to have a season ticket with the family that I used to live with to go and watch Málaga, so I’ll always try to keep across what’s happening in the Spanish league. I don’t hugely watch the French league or the Italian. I don’t find them readily available in America. They’ve never really been the center of my focus, but any game of football that is on, I’ll sit down and watch for sure.
As for this year’s Champions League campaign, it hasn’t been a great season for Spurs. What do you think about their chances of getting out of the group?
It’s been disappointing because I think it’s a team you always look at. You look at that team, the talent that they’ve assembled, the fact that they’ve got some of that talent signed up to long term deals, which is really important for them. They’ve got [Mauricio] Pochettino in charge, who everybody rates hugely as a coach. There’s so many positives going for them that you’re kind of just constantly waiting for them to take that next step. I think they’ve had a lot of players who came back from the World Cup, which has been an issue, and then you’ve got all these issues with the stadium. There’s so many distractions that they’ve had to contend with, the talk about Mauricio Pochettino being a target for Real Madrid. I’m sure if you’re one of the top players, if you’re a Harry Kane or a Dele Alli, you’re looking at that and thinking, “What does this mean for my future?,” because I’m sure they want to be at Tottenham because he’s at Tottenham because they will view him as the one that gives them the chance to really progress there and do well and win trophies.
I’m constantly hoping that things can turn themselves around. At this point, you’re in a massively difficult spot to make this work in the Champions League season. I think probably the best thing for them to do would be to focus on Premier League and see what they can achieve there. I think the Champions League is almost already a lost cause for them. You never know. Miracles can happen. Teams can drop points. Spurs could win their next games, but it’s obviously no longer in their hands. They’re such a talented team, though, and when they’re playing well, they play fantastic football, so I’d love to see them do better but I think this will be a difficult season.
If I had to force you into an answer, do you think Pochettino ends up at Real Madrid sooner rather than later?
It’s a difficult one, because I think he’s a good fit. Part of their issue is that they haven’t really rejuvenated the squad. They’ve got these more veteran players are maybe a bit tired, don’t have the same hunger that they once used to, are very used to winning. They’ve lost a [Cristiano] Ronaldo, and don’t have that real winners mentality and drive that need to spur the team on. To have somebody like a Pochettino that brings through younger talent, and that’s really his forte and his strength, would be a fantastic fit for them right now.
I don’t know what his contractual situation is with Spurs and how long he’s signed up for. I thought he was signed up for a relatively long time and had extended that deal relatively recently. He strikes me as the type of manager who, once he has started a project, will want to see that project through, so I don’t think he’ll make the move easily, but ultimately, I think if Real Madrid made an official offer, I think it’s a hard gig to turn down. I definitely think it’s a tough one to turn down. Do I think he ends up there? 50-50. I don’t think the chances are any bigger than that right now.
Who do you think is in the best position to win the Champions League this season at the moment?
I think there’s a lot of focus on [Paris Saint-Germain and] Manchester City, two teams who’ve got these incredible players and there’s such an expectation from fans, from the people who run the team who have invested such a lot of money. I don’t see PSG winning it; Manchester City, if they can play the kind of football that they’re playing in the Premier League consistently, they have absolutely every chance of winning it.
Juventus, potentially, with Cristiano Ronaldo. That was obviously why they brought him on board. That was what they wanted from that addition and he’s scoring goals. If they had gotten as close to winning it as they’ve done in past seasons and now have added somebody at the caliber of Cristiano Ronaldo, they’ve certainly got every chance. It seems like it would a little bit too good to be true, that they buy Ronaldo and immediately win the Champions League, but it would be a fantastic story that could well happen.
You’ve covered several events in multiple languages over the course of your career, but do you have a highlight at the moment?
I’ve done Champions League finals. That’s hard to top on location. I did Juventus-Real Madrid a couple of seasons back in Cardiff, so back in the UK. I actually did that for Fox Deportes, so in Spanish, and that was a really cool experience for me just because they’re a fun team to work with. They approach soccer coverage really differently to the way an [English-language] American network does. It’s a lot of talk, and I think our post-game was three hours, which would be unheard of in UK television, but they’re so comfortable with that format and they don’t care if they’ve got anything planned out. It doesn’t all have to be covered by pictures or graphics or stats and all those different things. All they want a good conversation about soccer, and that works for their audience, so that was really enjoyable for me.