First of all, let’s be honest here. I am not a Soccer fan, but I can admit that the FIFA World Cup grabs my interest and I do watch. The FIFA video game is pretty darn cool actually.
I’m also not a Soccer Head so I couldn’t care less about who ultimately wins and I really couldn’t care less about how it’s broadcast or who is broadcasting it, but that’s just me. Count me among the people who watches Soccer every four years unless someone I know is playing it at the local level.
The Soccer Heads who climb out from underneath their rocks every four years live and die by this thing and if an American network dares to the try something different with respect to how it’s broadcast, then it’s truly the end of the world. Golf fans are ridiculously picky when it comes to how their sport is televised, but they have nothing on Soccer Heads.
This Thursday, the 21st edition of the World Cup begins a month long run in Russia leading up to the Championship on July 15th. The FIFA World Cup began in 1930 as an offshoot of the Olympic Soccer Tournament. And, yes I know that in the rest of world the sport is called football, but no self-respecting American is going to call this anything but Soccer.
The tournament has been held every four years since except for twice in the 1940s due to World War II. It started as a contest between 24 nations, but now has 32 nations. And, here’s where some of the terminology that Soccer Heads insist you use comes into play. First, there is the “Group Stage” where the 32 teams are divided into 8 groups and play each other. That’s “Group Stage” to Soccer Heads. That’s what we know as “Pool Play.” Once each team has played the other in its group, then the top two teams in each group advance to wait for it….the “Knockout Stage”. That consists of 16 teams and in America we just call that a tournament or a bracket. Can you imagine the NCAA Tournament being called the “Knockout Tournament.” No of course you can’t because it makes no sense.
To decide who advances out of the 8 groups, FIFA has set up an elaborate formula. A team gets 3 points for a win, 1 for a draw (again, use the right terminology because to the rest of us that’s a tie), and 0 points for a loss. If there are ties for one of the two spots, then those ties are broken in descending order by: greatest combined goal difference in group matches; greatest combined number of goals scored in group matches; and if still tied, in descending order, the greatest number of points in head to head matches, greatest goal difference in head to head matches, or greatest number of goals scored in head to head matches. If none of that breaks the ties, then you draw lots. The Knockout Stage beings with what you and I would call the Round of 16, but to Soccer Heads, it’s the second round. I assume the Group Stage is the first round.
We’ve long heard that Soccer is the world’s most popular sport and that’s true. It’s just not America’s most popular sport and it never will be despite the alarmingly high number of Soccer Moms who are ruining sports in this country with their everyone deserves a trophy bullshit.
210 countries attempted to qualify for this year’s event. They participate in what FIFA calls “zone tournaments” covering Africa, Asia, North and Central American and the Carribean (that’s all one zone), Oceania, Europe and South America. It takes two to three years to qualify for the World Cup. FIFA allocates certain qualifying spots to those zones. The most qualifying spots belong to Europe with 13. Africa is next with 5 and Asia with 4. Turns out that the North and Central America and Carribean only get 3 or 4 spots if a team can win a one-game playoff with another zone.
And that was the problem for this year’s World Cup. To let you know that Soccer is not that popular in American (despite the radical fringe trying to convince you that it is), for the first time since 1986, the American team didn’t qualify. They needed only to tie Trinidad and Tobago last year to earn a spot or at least a one game playoff for a spot and they lost to the 99th ranked team in the World from a small Carribean Island. The Soccer Heads had a nuclear meltdown, but since it occurred during the middle of football season, it largely went unnoticed by everyone else. The sky was falling for the soccer crowd, but frankly no one outside of those ESPN analysts who went crazy that night gave it a second look.
America’s lack of presence in this year’s Cup is ironic in a way because consider that the first World Cup matches were held on July 13, 1930 and one of the two winners on that day was the U.S. team. This year, the U.S. isn’t even represented. It’s not like the Americans ever actually have a chance of winning the World Cup anyway. The 20 previous champions have all either come from the continents of Europe or South America. Brazil has played in every World Cup and leads the world with 5 championships. Germany and Italy have won 4 apiece, Argentina 2, Uruguay (who won the very first cup) 2, and England, France and Spain with one win apiece.
The major impact on the U.S.’s absence may be on the eyeballs watching in America. For the first time, FOX holds the rights to the World Cup having outbid longtime home ABC/ESPN for this year’s cup and those in 2022 and 2026. Look I don’t follow soccer so I don’t know the announcers FOX is using, but I’m sure they’ll be appeasing to the Soccer Heads and use the right terminology. FOX initially hired longtime CBS broadcaster Gus Johnson (whose NCAA Tournament calls are legendary) with the intent on making him their top Soccer voice. That lasted about one tournament and Johnson was smart enough to know he had no chance at appeasing the Soccer Heads who religiously watch the sports and stepped aside.
As for terminology, when is a field, not a field. Well in soccer its a pitch. The Knockout Stage consists of one-off matches. We would call it overtime in American sports. Nope, it’s extra time in the Soccer World. When you play 45 minutes in a half in America, we set the clock at 45:00 and countdown. Nope, the World Cup starts at 0:00 and counts up. And to break ties after “extra time” Soccer uses penalty kicks. The rest of the sports world would just call that stupid. That’s the equivalent of having a home run derby to break a tie in baseball.
The World Cup will be televised in 101 countries all of whom will employ their own announcers with the FIFA produced world feed. To be fair, yes the sport has grown in popularity in America and that coincides with its treatment on television in America. The World Cup was first televised in the United States in 1966 but only the Championship game. NBC brought the country the first ever stand alone Soccer broadcast but it was in black-and-white, came from the BBC and was on tape delay with the great hall of fame broadcaster Jim Simpson calling the action.
In 1970, ABC brought week old highlights of the Cup on its Wide World of Sports anthology program and CBS did the same with its Sports Spectacular program in 1974. The first live telecast of the final came in 1982 on ABC, but the preliminaries were all shown on PBS, I guess right after Sesame Street.
In 1986, NBC showed 7 matches on the weekend and used on-site announcers for the first time. ESPN had the preliminaries during the week. In 1990, the Cup took a step back when it came to cable television being televised exclusively on Turner’s TNT Network. It appeared to find a permanent home in America in 1994 when it moved to ABC/ESPN for the next 20 years hitting the milestone of having all of the matches televised live for the first time in 1996.
To give you an idea of how even ABC/ESPN treated the event and alienated the radical Soccer Heads who care about such things. In 1994, ABC used Roger Twibell as its lead announcer. I haven’t seen that guy in years and the last time I saw him doing anything was a UNLV football game in the middle of night on CBS Sports Network. For some reason in 2002, ABC/ESPN used Jack Edwards as its lead announcer. That guy is a clown period much less on something like Soccer and I don’t even know where he works now, or if he works. And, in 2006 ABC used Dave O’Brien as its lead announcer. O’Brien who cut his teeth on baseball tried his best, but the Soccer Heads freaked out because he didn’t use the correct terminology and mispronounced names at times. I’m sure he was more than happy to go back to baseball.
FOX will employ all on-site announcers again using the FIFA World Feed. But, if you are truly interested, you are better off from the television perspective to find “Telemundo” who will broadcast the event in Spanish in the United States. Telemundo’s lead announcer is Andres Cantor – a true legend – who is known mostly for his elongated GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL” call each time a call is scored. If you don’t know Spanish, goal is the only word you’ll understand, but who cares. He’s just awesome and will broadcast his first world cup since 1996.
FIFA is trying to increase the exposure of its tournament. The organization, which has endured a major bribery scandal over the past 3 years, will expand the tournament to 48 teams in 2026. That’s 16 groups of 3 teams apiece, with only the group winner advancing to the “Knockout Stage”. America is teaming with Canada and Mexico in a bid to host the 2026 cup. American hosted before in 1996. Since then, Asia hosted for the first time in 2002 and in 2022 Qutar becomes the first Middle Eastern Country to host, although there are valid concerns that the searing heat in the small desert country will effect the event. And, there’s also a concern that they only won the host role by greasing the right palms at FIFA, which frankly doesn’t make them any different from how business in done in America sometimes.
If you are on the fringe as to whether to check out the World Cup or not, let me leave you with this. In 2011, there was a study conducted in South Africa (which hosted the 2010 cup) that showed that nine months following the Cup there was a spike in birth rates meaning there was a spike in sex during the World Cup. That alone should be enough to become a Soccer fan for at least a month. Just make sure you use the right terminology.