“What those guys have done is put it into a – what a goal by Croatia! Oh my God! Did you see?”
Any skepticism that Will Arnett might not really have caught the soccer bug, that perhaps this is all more business than pleasure for the “Arrested Development” and “BoJack Horseman” star, is quickly dispelled when Ivan Perisic’s lovely equalizer hits the net while he’s in mid-sentence. His interview with MLSsoccer.com happens to be taking place during Monday’s World Cup Round-of-16 marathon between Japan and the Croats, you see.
No, Arnett’s living every minute of this tournament, just like millions of other junkies across North America and the world. You can tell by listening to a few episodes of “Back of the Net,” the almost-daily live World Cup show he’s co-hosting with US women’s national team star Sam Mewis and an ensemble of other big characters like Marshawn Lynch and guests like Rob McElhenney on Amazon’s Amp Radio.
“There’s so many great soccer commentators and pundits around the world, especially in Europe. They got so many amazing people who know how to break it down and who are experts,” explained the Canadian-born actor.
“But sometimes you want to break it down in a way that’s maybe not from such lofty heights, and much more just talk about it as a fan. And so I just try to talk about it as a fan, and I’m not afraid to take sides, and to have opinions about people or players or whatever. Because that’s what I would do sitting on my couch with my pals.”
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Sitting on the couch watching soccer is what Arnett has been doing – starting as early as 4:30 am – most weekend mornings at his home in Southern California for the past few years, thanks to a love for Liverpool FC passed on to him by his writing partner Mark Chappell, an Englishman who supports the Scousers. The more he watched, the more of the storylines he soaked up, the more fascinated he became.
“I’m the guy who like, gets really mad when there’s an international break,” Arnett revealed with a chuckle. “‘Are there no games this weekend?’ I’m like, UEFA Nations League, that’s so stupid! What am I doing?!’”
He believes that the same will sooner or later happen to millions of other North Americans who haven’t yet gotten exposed to the full range of drama, melodrama and farce, both on and off the field, that so obsesses the rest of the world alongside the simple joys of the sport itself. Like a certain egotistical Portuguese veteran who Arnett has made a recurring object of his obvious distaste on “Back of the Net.”
“The more that you hear about, like, Ronaldo, talking s— about [Manchester United manager Erik] ten Hag – and frankly, while it’s s—– for Man U, it’s good for soccer on the whole, because it starts making it to the front cover of ESPN.com or whatever: ‘Ronaldo speaks out,’” said Arnett. “And people are like, Oh, I know that name, Ronaldo, what happened? Oh, he left the game early on? He didn’t just leave the bench, he left the stadium? Oh, he refused to sub in?! Who is this clown? Oh, he’s getting $211 million a season to play in Saudi Arabia?!’
“All that s—, that’s all the human interest part. And that’s the part I think about sport that is underestimated, that people respond to. There’s a reason that they make all these NFL shows that are in the locker room and stuff, because it’s a deeper connection. And if we can kind of create that in this country, that’s going to be the breakthrough. I think that’s the thing that people underestimated or didn’t realize was going to help connect with viewers in this country.”
GET IN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!@LFC #YNWA
Like most Canadians, Arnett grew up a hockey nut more than anything, and remains loyal to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet, as it does for so many of us, the beautiful game might just be crowding into more and more of his mental real estate with time.
“The Maple Leafs are like, part of what I am, who I am, in a way, as weird or sad as that sounds,” he said. “And so I never thought that there would be another sport that could kind of come in and play such a huge role in not just my watching, but sort of like, as you say, consume me on that level. And now soccer is kind of threatening to do that.
“Especially right now during the World Cup, I feel like every morning is Christmas morning. Because there’s so much to watch, and the timing of it, being out here [on the West Coast], is amazing.”
Arnett even got to spend the early stages of the 2022 World Cup on-site in Qatar. He’d already made plans to be in the nearby United Arab Emirates for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, as he also leads “Fast & Loose,” a podcast about Formula 1 racing. That race wrapped on the opening day of Qatar ‘22, so he got the chance to experience the World Cup in person for the first time.
“Living in this country as a soccer fan, you realize how global it is and how much people are crazy about it in other parts of the world. And certainly the people here in this country who are crazy about it, you kind of seek each other out – it’s like hockey fans, too, you find each other in a way, find other people who are into it,” Arnett said.
“But then when you go there, if you just see the effect that it has on these countries just, in such a bigger way, it’s really pretty amazing. Yeah, it was an awesome experience, man.”
While he keeps an eye on Toronto FC back in his homeland, he hasn’t yet had an in-person MLS experience, though he did send a congratulatory message to his “Semi-Pro” and “Blades of Glory” co-star Will Ferrell when Ferrell’s LAFC won MLS Cup 2022 last month.
Arnett claims “I’m not as rich as Rob McIlhenny, or Ryan Reynolds,” the Hollywood duo making headlines in Wales for their acquisition of a controlling interest in Wrexham AFC, which they subsequently made into the subject of a popular FX documentary series. But he admits he’d be intrigued by the idea of becoming a soccer investor himself someday, just like his current collaborator Lynch is with USL Championship club Oakland Roots.
“I don’t know if having my name attached would be a big deal or it’d be a deterrent,” he joked. “I wouldn’t want anybody to think that I think that I’m some kind of an expert… a guy who I’ve known for a long time, Tom Warner, I’ve worked with him a bunch, he’s a producer and he’s a good friend of mine. And he’s chairman of Liverpool, which is pretty sick. So he’s doing it on the highest level, you know what I mean? He’s a chairman of a Premier League club, and I get to kind of pick his brain every once in a while, if he lets me, with annoying questions about Liverpool.
“Do I think that I have the capacity to do what those guys do? I would never suggest that I do. Would it be fun to be part of the process? Totally. So let me just say to any of the big clubs out there: I’m open to conversations, let’s go.”
🗣 "I think Ted [Lasso]'s team, Ryan [Reynolds]'s team and LA FC should all try to play each other in some way – like a three-team tournament"
American actor and comedian Will Ferrell tries out #MLS commentary and suggests Wrexham should play LA FC 👀 pic.twitter.com/fOilkk8tI7
Arnett can already say he’s played a soccer executive on television. He reveled in the role of a crass, idiotic American club owner on a recent BBC show called “The First Team,” and took over the spot previously occupied by Armie Hammer on “Next Goal Wins,” the long-awaited feature about Thomas Rongen and the American Samoa national team being led by Academy Award winner Taika Waititi.
“It’s been fun to kind of do all this stuff in and around soccer for sure,” he said. “And it’s fun watching [Jason] Sudeikis with ‘Ted Lesso.’ I think that that’s been really good too for soccer. Sudeikis does such an awesome job with that. I don’t know if there’s room to do more than I’ve already done, but it’s just fun being in and around it.”
It sounds like Ferrell is overdue to extend his friend an invite to one of those boxes at Banc of California Stadium. Or, considering how adeptly Arnett is shepherding “Back of the Net,” maybe a broadcast booth.
“We’re just trying to have the conversation, and I think that anything that can help elevate conversation about soccer in this country is good,” said Arnett. “You can just feel that it’s gaining in popularity. And I want everybody who’s just a casual fan to be able to feel like they have another place where they can listen to stuff.”