So Much Dancing and Singing in the Streets - World Cup Soccer on US TV

Can we talk about the TV coverage of the World Cup for a moment?

The World Cup, as it seems, is a pretty big deal, and TV is a big part of why it’s great. Germany’s fairly hospitable time zone for US viewing (in comparison to those nightmarish early-AM matches from the Far East in ’02) and the fact that the Teutonic sun stays out until about 9:45PM this time of year means that live games can be seen all day on the ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 family.

We all know about the difficult time soccer/football has had here in the US for any number of reasons (Is it OK to call it soccer? Too pretentious to call it football?) and I’m not even going to get into that discussion. But as a casual fan and admirer of the beautiful game who has watched something like 12 hours of soccer on TV in the last three days, I’ve noticed a few things about how this game is presented to the US.

As Bono (of course) so eloquently puts it in ESPN’s promotional spots for the Cup, “It’s a simple thing, a ball and a goal.” He then reminds us that once every four years, this simple thing closes shops, stops wars, changes the world, does more than politicians ever could, and so on. These spots were the opening salvo in ABC/ESPN’s campaign to bludgeon its viewers repeatedly with soccer’s profound importance in the world. ...more

So important, apparently, that it’s all any of the US commentators want to talk about. Civil war in the Ivory Coast—a World Cup newcomer that’s being forced into a heartwarming Jamaican-bobsled-team-type roll—and Iran’s nuclear saber rattling have been popular soccer-as-microcosm-of-international-affairs topics so far. A lot of effort has been put into allusions to all of the “dancing and singing in the streets” that follows even the most minor of national team successes, so often that it seems these soccer-crazed foreigners have so much pride in their teams that they’ll dance and sing in the streets for just about anything.

All of this big-picture talk—tedious at best and downright embarrasing at worst—makes it clear that the majority of ABC/ESPN’s team just doesn’t know what else to talk about. Even the smattering of former US National Team players that provide analysis seem surprisingly vapid when it comes to talking about what’s going on in an interesting way. The strategic thinking that goes into a World Cup match has to be staggering, and as someone who doesn’t really know much about the intricacies of the game, I want to be told what’s going on in as much detail as possible. This is what good commentators—like ESPN baseball’s Jonny Miller and Joe Morgan—do for you: they tell you what the fuck is happening on the field and why it’s interesting.

But instead of insightful analysis, we get all the dancing and singing in the streets talk. The only bright spot on ABC/ESPN’s lineup is the team of Adrian Healey and the ridiculously Irish Tommy Smyth—notable as the only European commentators on ESPN’s roster. Smyth seems like he knows exactly what’s happening behind the scenes, and peppers his analysis with talk of a “bulge in the old onion bag” when a goal is scored, etc. But so far Healey/Smyth has only done the Poland-Ecuador match; most of the time, we’re subjected to Dave O’Brien, a baseball commentator who only started calling soccer this year, and his analysis partner Marcel Balboa, the miraculously coiffed former US National Team player. Balboa can be insightful at times, but he probably spends most of the game trying not to slap O’Brien in the face.

Late in the Iran-Mexico game, after one of O’Brien’s attempts to put “this whole thing in perspective,” Balboa had to counter: “They’re just athletes. They’re doing what they love to do.” Which is of course as maudlin as anything else, but at least he’s trying.

Ah, look here, Healey/Smyth just came on covering the colonially-spiced Angola-Portugal match. And Portugal just bulged the ol’ onion bag. Time to start actually listening.

Postscript: ABC/ESPN’s commentators may suck, but their scrolling-Flash World Cup website is awesome.

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