Monday, June 19, 2006

Swindle On Soccer, Vol. 5:
ESPN's Coverage Is Teh Suxorz!

Swindle On Soccer, Vol.4: Golden Guus!
Swindle On Soccer, Vol. 3: US-Czech Republic
Swindle On Soccer, Vol. 2: Pregame, USA
Swindle On Soccer, Vol. 1: Staggering To Life
Swindle On Soccer: An Introduction

ESPN's given us so much over the years that crapping on it continuously really isn't fair. Dog jumping. The World's Strongest Man. Keith Olbermann making Emanuel Kant jokes on national tv. Even Berman, who we would happily strap a parachute onto and push out of a plane over the friendly territory of southern Afghanistan, was once funny before we had certain things like taste, the ability to feed ourselves, and secondary sexual characteristics. We owe them much in the way of happy, idle memories.

Given that, they deserve no quarter for their soccer coverage. The great (and in the eyes of its detractors) and awful thing about futbol is it indeterminacy. In football, a play may look like this from the quarterback's perspective.

1. Recognize Tampa 2.
2. Adjust protection.
3. Look for skinny post on weak side.
4. If covered check TE curl.
5. If covered go to RB in flat.
6. If all covered run.

It reads like Perl or any other piece of code. Statistics may be derived, parsed, and then rederived based on evaluation over long periods of time, so that trends may be read across the data of a large sample set. This could as a football fan create a sensation of tingling in the brain and a heightened awareness. This can be labeled pleasure.

Soccer, from the midfielder's perspective, rarely follows code. Perhaps there is a set play ready to run; a give and go, a through ball splitting defenders, a few well-rehearsed routines fitting certain situations. A game of flow lends itself to fewer stats, fewer set pieces, and fewer opportunities to insert verbiage, image, and frame between the viewer and the event.

This doesn't jibe well with ESPN's general M.O., which is not to serve so much as a portal for the unscripted theatre of sport but as the medium and message of sport. They take a simple thing and make it complex, presenting ESPN as the indispensable provider of not sports, but ESPN Sports, a stat-clogged, commentary-heavy continuous 24-hr. event where sport is overshadowed by the people who play, pay, and comment on it. Football and baseball are perfect for this sort of obstructive, manufactured, showy presentation, since their content source is practically painted on the field in numbers. Basketball is less so, though the numbers come a-plenty thanks to nimble statspeople counting every rebound and each assist.

"I am now prepared to examine your strange sport."

Soccer eludes this kind of repetitive autopsy of the event because there's so little to count. Shots on goal, time of possession...none matter as much as the final score, a scanty total compared to basketball or even hockey.Thus ESPN, reliant on speaking for the game rather than letting games speak for themselves, has to manufacture things to do pre- and post-match: flashing meaningless stats across the bottom third of the screen (often obscuring the ball handler at the moment,) and forcing Alexei Lalas, Julie Fowdy, and Alexei Lalas into the hectoring, exasperated ESPN analyst mold but thus far sparing us the faux-PTI arguments peppering every other WWL product.

This parody video--showing what Microsoft would do to the IPod if they controlled the marketing and presentation of it--details exactly what ESPN attempts to do to soccer, and exactly why it fails. Full of bullets. Cluttered. Crammed with extraneous shit assuming you, the viewer who went to the trouble of watching in the first place, can't figure out what's going on in the game, ultimately creating an ugly, inferior product.

The IPod in this case would be the much-lauded Univision coverage. First there's their superior pregame: rather than the clinical, stat-driven coverage broadcast from a dark studio by announcers wearing ties (it's a rule: if you're on camera at ESPN, you wear a tie unless you're a lady, in which case you wear a suit with shoulder pads), Republica Deportiva allows viewers to wallow in what most soccer viewers want anyway: ass, titties, atmosphere, and brief highlights.

Feel Fernando, because he is feeling you.

The women wear hot pants customized to the colors of the team they root for that day, since RD is completely partisan in almost every match, a preference determined exclusively by your proximity to Miami. The women are fed, unlike what we imagine you'd see on Fox pregame show of similar design, and outnumber men by a ratio of 311-1 very, very happy dude in pleated pants. There's always a band. There's always dancing. There's always one woman you see who merits phone calls to friends operating on people's brains, filing depositions, and rescuing babies from buildings just to tell them, "No, seriously dude, I just have to see it." It's all gloriously stupid and fun and everything ESPN cannot and will not ever be.

Que Ridiculo.

This doesn't mean the game coverage isn't serious, though. Anthems and entrances play with minimal interruption. Once the match gets going, NOTHING interrupts the view of the screen, and the camera work flows smoothly from broad panaorama to tight, well-timed shots of player and coach reactions. Fan fun is reserved largely for pregame shots and halftime. And the announcers, if you can understand them, keep it light and unobtrusive, doing what could best be called chit-chat in between frenetic excitement whenever the goal appears in the frame.

The final reason the Univision coverage trumps all attempts by ESPN to capture a splinter of the alchemy of World Cup soccer: the Gol! logo. As the announcer bellows the best call in all of sport--GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!, alternately said in low tones for the opposing team and high tones for whomever the announcer is shamelessly rooting for--the little golden word GOL! bounces in the corner slowly and giddily. Just the sight of it warms our heart: whimsical, luminescent, small but exuberant, and redolent of less-than-opulent budgets. It's everything to love about World Cup soccer on Univision.


Kanu said...

Swindle you magnificent bastard! I have been working on a ESPN soccer slam piece for about a week - the working title is "Worldwide Leader In Shite", and I have been planning to sit on it until the end of the group stage. But after reading your post it seems that I don't even need to bother with it any more, because you wrote alot of what I was thinking in an infinitely more eloquent way.

"Top notch, son. Top notch!"
-Judge Smailes, Caddy Shack

Anonymous said...

Chilavert's comments also detail what his experiences have been with the ref since he is the one with the most recent playing time. Which is pretty helpful as in the case today between Ecuador and Germany. Despite being partisan to Latin American countries and the motherlands of Portugal and Spain the broadcast duos do not hesitate to rip on a lackluster effort such as the one Brazil has performed on the field or on the bias in the fouls called by the officals against an underdog team such as when Australia played Brazil, and just bad playing by any team (the elbowing by some italians whi shall not be named comes to mind). To put it simply the broadcast duos seem to be selected for a good match of chemistry, intelligent speaking (which is probably more difficult when you consider the large amount of regionalism that occurs in Spanish), humor, etc. In short these are guys that you could sit down and have a drink with and they would be friendly, knowlegable, and witty. I have not really watched the English broadcasts but from various blogs the opinion is that they should be hanged in effigy for making fĂștbol seem boring. Also watch the final on Univision since ESPN will cut away from the match as soon as it is over and Univision will still have the entire award ceremony till it is concluded.

Anonymous said...

All of this begs just one question to me: was the ESPN broadcasts better when they had Jack Edwards doing the play-by-play? Sure the guy was shamelessly rooting for the US, but it was fun to hear him give himself a hernia everytime the US passed the ball closed to the penalty area (and in 2002, put it in the net quite a number of times). Then, after he dared to refer to the US as "home of the brave, land of the free" after the US defeated Mexico, ESPN got rid of him because people complained about his bias. In light of what people are saying about the Univision broadcasts (especially those who understand Spanish), I'm left to ponder who complained.

Nathan said...

I could pass on Chilavert (who's an assclown of the highest degree) - but I agree, Univision's coverage is infinitely better than ESPN's simply brutal attempt.

Anonymous said...

I am only a casual soccer fan, but I don't miss the World Cup. This year, discovering the brilliance and insanity that is Republica Deportiva was a bonus. I don't know if non-Spanish speakers understand that RD IS a republic with the women as the Senators and the mustachioed guy as the President.

The broadcast teams for Univision are definitely homers for the US as well, they call the US "el equipo de todos" -- "everyone's team". I find the play by play hilarious. The calls bounce back and forth between the poetic and the silly. If it weren't for the darn delay in ESPN HD, I'd mute ESPN and play the Univision audio.

Does anyone sense that ESPN may be trying (too hard) to make futbol "safe" for its American audience? They use the same format as every other sport and the play by play sounds like hockey at best. Univision just knows that their audience understands and loves the game and tap on the fun aspect of the game.

Anonymous said...

Of course Chila is a ham, but you have to take it all in stride, including the ratings that he gives the refs. But he still has international playing expereince which gives him a unique perspective on the action.

Moin, I did not even know that sports broadcasting had to be PC. That sucks if a good braodcaster was canned for being emotional and having a a good time.

I also love the fact that the games are repeated in their entirety later on in the day.

My personal favorite line from the Univision broadcasts, "Como se dice torre en Aleman?" - "Mertesacker!" "How do you say tower in German?" - "Mertesacker!"

Of course when Ricardo Fiore comments on an attractive female in the stands during the pregame and halftime is pretty funny.

Lux Intellectus said...

The difference between ESPN and Univision is the difference between two guys sitting in a hotel room watching soccer and two players sitting on a bench during a game and watching soccer. I've had lots of great times watching my teammates play, and making fun of them or the other team, while also being able to appreciate a beautiful pass, a great goal, or a hot girlfriend. I think Univision captures the essence of this perfectly -- they are less about explanation and more about appreciation. Soccer has more of an aesthetic element to it than any other sport, thus "joga bonito", and so appreciation works much better than explanation.

My favorite moment was in the last England game when they kept referring to Crouch as "Mr. Roboto" because of his dance exploits. That's just the kind of thing I say to a teammate on the bench and it captures the essence of the soccer playing experience.


p.s. Swindle makes me proud to be a Gator.

Kanu said...


Agreed. And even funnier is how they only refer to Beckham as "Spiceman".