Why I Watch The World Cup in Spanish

The reasons are quite straightforward, and as might be expected, not exceedingly deep. They are only interesting because, I, like many others who watch Spanish-language broadcasts of the 2014 World Cup, do not speak Spanish. (At least, my Spanish has never risen above some minimal fluency.)

First, the most superficial reason of all. The Spanish language broadcasts on Univision are called by commentators considerably more animated than the ESPN crew: they are more voluble, they string together extended descriptions of play, each infused with a great deal of passion; the pleasurably interminable calls of GOOOOOOAAAAALLL are, of course, a bonus; when a game is running late and a team is desperately pressing for an equalizer, the crowd sounds plus the increasingly frenzied play-calling can build to a pleasurable crescendo. At the most basic level, watching a Spanish-language telecast of a World Cup provides ample and repeated confirmation of the Cup’s standing as the world’s premier sporting event; this year, the Cup is being held in South America, and watching in Spanish provides a better virtual connection with the venue. (Besides, I’m in New York City; watching the World Cup in Spanish seems like the right thing to do in a city in which so much Spanish is spoken on a daily basis by so many of its residents.)

Second, Spanish language broadcasts seem especially appropriate when watching South American countries play. In the catalog of pitiful attempts to construct the right kind of atmosphere for soccer watching, watching two Spanish-speaking countries go at each other accompanied by a Spanish commentary soundtrack will always find honorable mention. You can even fool yourself, for a second or two, that you have attained a deeper understanding of a more ‘natural’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘skillful’ way of playing football. You can close your eyes and paint a picture or two in your mind of a game played far away, with a far away sensibility. (This past weekend, I watched part of the Brazil-Chile game on ESPN-Deportes; the commentary was in Portuguese, and was a particularly appropriate accompaniment to the game’s action.)

Third, perhaps more seriously, the primary sin, in my eyes, of the various combinations of British commentators that ESPN subjects us to is that they cannot shake themselves free of a dominant set of stereotypical and archaic narratives. To wit, to put it just a tad crudely, South American, Asian, and African teams are overly excitable, poorly disciplined, lackadaisical, more prone to psychological meltdowns; their brand of ‘instinctive’ soccer always somehow needs fine-tuning when coming up against the systematic execution of game plans by European teams.  This flavoring of the commentary can vary in its subtlety but it is unmistakably present. It equips the English-language commentary with a very particular evaluative frame; the average South American, African or Asian player is subject to a persistent exoticization, one which carries it with a heavy burden for its subjects. They have to perform to a standard of sporting and moral rectitude that they seem blithely unaware of. But which I seem just a little sensitive to–perhaps excessively so, but for the time being, watching in Spanish will do just fine.

Note: There was a time when I used to think watching Spanish language soccer broadcasts would improve my spoken Spanish, but I’ve given up any hope of that.

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