In this past month of World Cup football, I have seen my facebook stream lit up by “friends” claiming that they are loving to watch coverage in Spanish. In many cases, these friends speak Spanish as a second language; I even have friends who don’t speak Spanish well at all, yet watch the Spanish coverage because they claim it is more dramatic.
It always strikes me that American football/soccer fans always seem to be drawn in by the aura of American Spanish-language channel coverage of the sport.
The perspective of this type of fan looks down upon the English-speaking coverage one finds in the USA. Typically, the formula goes as follows: a dry, serious, and knowledgeable British announcer, plus one American with some (often tenuous) connection to the world of soccer.
The formula has varied slightly over the years, though in 2010, ESPN has stuck faithfully to it, adding in color commentary in the postgame, pregame, and halftime slots. This year, the coverage has been particularly good, featuring analysis from such legends of football as Steve McManaman and Jürgen Klinsman, and some current figures such as Wigan coach Roberto Martínez.
While I am occasionally annoyed by the (virtually inevitable) stream of stereotyping, clichés, and general lack of knowledge of the commentators (Alexi Lalas is often guilty of this, in my opinion), I am overall pleased with how far football coverage has come in the US since I was younger.
When I was little (we are talking up to the mid-90’s), it was literally impossible to watch many tournaments such as the Copa América, the European Nations’ Cup, or the Champions’ League. By the time I was a teenager, we were luck to live near a bar in Arlington, Virginia named Summer’s that had a ridiculously expensive satellite system (one of only two in the nation, they claimed). There we were able to watch Euro ’96 and many other contests, surrounded by a packed restaurant full of fanatics in their team colors.
With the steady growth of Spanish-language television in the USA, soccer became more and more present. At the beginning, the Spanish-language commentary seemed infused with a true sense of passion enhanced by the novelty of it. Not that the sport was new to the audience, but rather that the means of communicating it was new (a Spanish-language channel in an English-speaking country) and the audience was increasingly new.
These early commentators were best represented by the legendary (and aptly-named) Andrés Cantor (we could call him Singing Andrew), whose extraordinarily long “GoooooooooooooooOOOOOOOOOooooool” cry became legend, especially in contrast to the dry “gringo” commentating on the ’94 World Cup. Cantor became symbolic of the “Latin passion” for football, though by 1998 he appeared to me as a caricature of himself, the kind that might sing an opera for the most meaningless goals and appear clownishly disconnected from the drama of the game.
This World Cup, I have been watching much of Univisión, mostly because I get the best digital cable signal from their channel to record matches. Regrettably, I find the commentary to be much like this clownified version of the original Cantor: theatrically-inclined blathering that often does more to distract than it does to enhance the match.
What’s more, this year’s coverage features the illustrious José Luis Chilavert, no stranger to violence and controversy in his day. The instigator of many an on-field brawl, his commentating has been along similar lines.
Among other things, he has slandered not only referees, but the nations they come from–his verbal assault against Guatemalan Carlos Batres was an insult to the entire national of Guatemala, as he dismissed their referee as a disgrace to the game, claiming he does not even come from a place that knows a thing about soccer.
In another rant, the Paraguayan went on a stunning (and unexpected) tirade justifying one of his other famous incidents, in which he doused Brazilian fullback Roberto Carlos with a generous spray of his phlegm. “Chila” claimed that Roberto Carlos had called him an indio (an Indian, ie. indigenous American) after the win, “as if he were a blond-haired, blue-eyed German.” The surprising explanation from the Paraguayan seems to reveal a certain disdain for Roberto Carlos’s own racial “composition,” insinuating that the fact that the Brazilian is of a “lower” race would make it more contemptible to insult his own race.
This is not to justify Roberto Carlos’s provocation, but considering that indio is a word tossed around pickup games like a water bottle where I play (mostly with Mexican and Central American immigrant players), the response of Chilavert is telling regarding the idea that the Spanish-speaking world is somehow magically united. Ironically, the same commentator, talking about the possibility of a Spain-Holland final, voiced his attitude towards Spain: “I was in Spain for a few years as a player, and all I can say is that the Spanish treat Latin American players badly… they are all racist.” Moments before, his co-commentators had said they were going for Spain, being the last Spanish-speaking country in the tournament.
We could immediately pounce on the sublime ignorance of his statement–not that there is no racism in Spain; we could certainly find examples of racism anywhere in the world. There is the obvious mistake of turning racism around and perpetuating it: to that tune, many of the Univisión forums feature posts from Latin Americans who are defending the Spanish based on their experiences there.
Even more, we could speak about how, in voicing his support for Holland, Chilavert is utterly unaware of their own very “rich” history of colonialism. Even in football terms, Holland have always had great black players, yet even in the national team racial division has been fingered as a principal reason for their failures–in the past, such great players as the mythical Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids have spoken about tensions divided along “color” lines. Let’s not even get into Holland’s own sociopolitical issues with racism. And that’s not to mention that word Apartheid, a direct result of Dutch colonialism and institutionalized racism that so disgracefully defined 20th century South Africa. Perhaps Chilavert would do to lift his head from out of his book of rage.
More importantly, the presence of such a quasi-populist character as Chilavert truly is can be traced to the network’s idea of finding some idyllic “Latino” medium to appeal to its supposedly unified audience. Take the character of Chilavert, long outspoken figure of footballing counter-culture, self-proclaimed defender of the oppressed football nations, and herald him as a symbol of “nuestro fútbol.” Step one in upholstering an already loosely-defined identity.
The next step in the formula which has most gotten my attention has been the peddling of sexual ideals via the Univisión World Cup coverage. Some of it is “universal”, ie, the constant shots of ostensibly attractive women in the crowd, which we could counter with the obvious: endless shots of ostensibly attractive “alpha males” (how many close-ups of every Cristiano Ronaldo expressions are there in comparison to the trademark grimaces of Carles Puyol). These kinds of things are, of course, a part of global marketing culture, not unique to the network.
Of more interest (or concern?) is the exclusive coverage that Univisión provides a myriad of scantily clad (usually in short shorts and cutoff team shirts), skinny, large-busted women, whose only job appears to be bouncing up and down and wiggling while screaming meaningless cheers without ever trying to say anything intelligible. Without fail, this comes before, after, and during every game.
For a channel that purports to be a voice for all Spanish-speakers (all of their award shows use the word Nuestro/a in some way, implying that this is our, the viewers’ award), I am quickly alienated by this “coverage” of the sport that I love. It is not to say that the women are unattractive, or repulsive, or even necessarily degrading themselves by bouncing during the World Cup on Univisión.
It is more a sense of alienation of message. Am I supposed to be, in some way, turned on by these women? Should I revel in their self-expression, their liberation from loose-fitting clothing (not to mention the incessant jumping)? Should I, as a Spanish speaker, or Hispanic, or Latino, be jumping up and down with them, joining in their fake fútbol-joy Or am I too uptight to enjoy “quality entertainment?”
In the end, I can only conclude that such coverage of soccer, coming from such a channel, can only be for those who may less the true fans, and more those who are looking for an identity represented by Chilavert, by the pantomime blathering of the announcers, by the bouncing women, by the feeling that this is ours and not theirs (they, I supposed, are the non Spanish-speaking other). I realize I am not one of them, and find myself regretting that I do not have a more comprehensive cable package; my inner self begs me as I watch the World Cup: ¡en inglés, por favor, por Dios!