world cup

There’s Nothing More American Than Watching Soccer in Spanish

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Soccer’s cultural footprint has expanded greatly in the U.S. over the past few years. But, in 2022, it’s still true that cultured fans often harbor prejudice toward anything too American in the sport. And few things trigger the soccer sophisticate more than the sight or sound of an American announcer. Fans regularly deride these broadcasters for a multitude of broadcasting sins: They talk too much or too little; they’re too loud or too quiet; they’re boring; they don’t do sufficient research; they mispronounce names; and, most of all, they fail to match the sophistication of their core audience. (Alexi Lalas often gets the most criticism of the bunch, though he embraces his role as resident agitator.) Brutal articles about the state of domestic soccer punditry appear during every World Cup, and 2022 has been no exception. By now, this self-flagellating ritual feels like part of the tournament itself.

So does another ritual many American fans practice: simply watching the games in Spanish instead. A lot of people, it turns out, would rather tune in to announcers they don’t fully understand than ones who, they claim, don’t fully understand the sport. These viewers aren’t just a few outliers. During the first two weeks of World Cup coverage, “mostly English” and “only English” viewers made up 25 percent of Telemundo’s audience, per Nielsen. (Spanish-speaking and bilingual Americans, of course, are the other 75 percent; Telemundo dedicates lots of coverage of Mexico and other Latin American teams to this audience but also to the U.S. national team.)

As anyone who has watched Telemundo for even a few minutes of World Cup coverage knows, it’s not just a good place to escape Chad Ochocinco. Spanish broadcasters offer an entirely different take on the game, one that goes big on flair, silliness, drama, and decibels. They ratchet up the tension to absurd levels. They pronounce players’ names exaggeratedly or simply make up funny nicknames. If you can’t understand what they’re saying, the joyful over-the-topness is enjoyable enough on its own; if you can, the announcers’ mix of poetic phrases, analysis, and lyricism adds another layer. And there’s nothing else in the world like the Latin world’s famous goal call.

The habit of English-speaking soccer fans watching the game in Spanish has deep roots, which I dug up while writing a book about America’s pioneering men’s team of 1990, which reached the tournament for the first time in 40 years during an era when most Americans hated soccer.

At first, American soccer fans weren’t willingly turning away from their own language. For years, the world’s game, largely shunned as un-American, was mostly invisible in this country. The only places to catch soccer regularly were in a British pub with an expensive satellite connection or at home on Spanish-language channels. In the ’80s, the production department at SIN (the precursor to Univision) caught wind of the English-speaking segment its broadcasts attracted. A few times each half, announcer Tony Tirado would code-switch to English and announce the score and the time remaining, then resume speaking Spanish. It was as if he were passing secret messages along to allies trapped behind enemy lines.

When American networks began paying more attention to soccer, they hired announcers from other sports, who lacked institutional knowledge to do the job effectively. For the 1990 World Cup, TNT tapped Bob Neal, a football and basketball announcer, and Mick Luckhurst, a football placekicker (who’s British, but still). Things improved from there, but, in part because the media treated soccer with contempt for so long, hard-core fans were skeptical — and remain so — as corporate America took an interest in the sport. So some retained allegiance to the foreign broadcasts.

Meanwhile, soccer steadily climbed in popularity around the country. But while NBC’s Premier League broadcasts draw sizable viewership, retired U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard is often the lone American among all the British-accented commentators and analysts. ESPN’s presentation of Spain’s La Liga is also dominated by foreigners, as is CBS’s broadcast of the Champions League, for the most part. Outside of the World Cup, much of America’s best broadcast talent is reserved for Major League Soccer and U.S. national-team games. Even the World Cup has featured British lead commentators off and on for many years — including this one, with Ian Darke most prominent.

There might be no human being who has seen more soccer from around the globe than Jerry Trecker, a retired journalist and high-school teacher who did background consulting for ESPN during the 1994 World Cup. For decades, if a match was televised pretty much anywhere in the world, he could get it on his massive satellite dish, which he modified to capture backhauls from Europe as well as Russian signals. He provided scouting and videos to the U.S. national team and became fluent in six languages in order to watch soccer games.

“There is a genuine enthusiasm in most Spanish broadcasters,” he explains, citing not just the excitement in play but the gusto with which they’ll pronounce players names or the silly nicknames they’ll make up. “It’s a love affair, and it’s humorous. They keep the fact that this is a game at the forefront.” (Trecker has been watching the 2022 World Cup in Spanish.)

Telemundo recently commissioned a study in which bilingual fans watched the same soccer match in Spanish or English. The network (which admittedly had a vested interest in the results) found that watching in Spanish “was like an entertaining and emotional rollercoaster ride” with higher highs and lower lows, which produced greater attention and appeal, especially during big, loud moments such as fouls, cards, or penalty kicks. Predictably, test subjects reacted most of all to the skull-rattling “goooooool” call in Spanish, a staple throughout the Latin world for which there’s nothing remotely equivalent in English.

Some American broadcasters are annoyed by the antipathy they generate every four years. Marcelo Balboa is one of them. A former captain of the U.S. men’s team who played in three World Cups, Balboa did color commentary for ESPN and elsewhere for many years in English, then switched to Univision. One reason for the move: He got tired of American soccer fans criticizing him.

“In 2010, some dude said he wished I were dead and that I didn’t know soccer,” Balboa explained. “That’s pretty disrespectful. If you’ve played at a high level, you have to understand the game — and I was getting critiqued by a guy who’d never kicked a ball.”

Balboa didn’t mention it, but he suffered disproportionately during the 2006 World Cup, broadcast by ESPN and ABC. He was partnered with Dave O’Brien, a longtime baseball announcer who was given little time to prepare. Although Balboa did a respectable job, O’Brien was heaped with abuse, and Balboa became guilty by association. (O’Brien did not help his case at the time when he explained, “There’s a petulant little clique of soccer fans. There’s not many of them, but they’re mean-spirited … And they’re not really the audience we want to reach anyway.”) ESPN lost many American viewers to Univision that World Cup and fielded so many complaints that the network hired several top British announcers for the 2010 tournament.

Balboa now enjoys working in Spanish with an audience that is less critical. The looser style allows him to giggle and joke a little more, he says. But he remains protective of his fellow Americans plying the trade in English.

“Look at all the former players in broadcasting,” he says, citing Taylor Twellman, Stu Holden, and others who played in World Cups and professionally in Europe. “That’s a lot of knowledge. On top of that, we do so much studying. A lot of us have been broadcasting for years — I have a hard time believing that we all suck.”

Balboa’s right. Anyone who’s watched soccer for long enough in this country can’t deny that American broadcasters have made great strides. I know what bad commentating sounds like — I heard plenty of things in the distant past I still can’t forget. This tournament, I’ve fallen into conversations with friends and fellow fans in which we’re each excited by how good several Fox folks are: To name two examples, people agree that Landon Donovan’s recent stint as a head coach is paying off in his insightful color commentary. And Jimmy Conrad, the hardworking host of Fox’s looser digital show, is clever, knowledgeable, and a lot of fun to watch.

This seems like a good time to come clean: Many years ago, I was that soccer fan who whined a little too loudly about American announcers. Sure, the coverage at the time was absolutely worth griping about, but that wasn’t the only reason. I felt it also marked me as authentic.

These days, I appreciate how far American soccer commentating has come — even if so many others don’t. Mild frustrations aside, I’m fine with the World Cup coverage. But for old times’ sake, and just for the joyful experience, I’ve also flipped over to Telemundo and watched a few games en español. It is, after all, an American soccer tradition.

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Watching the World Cup in Spanish: An American Tradition