Why you should care
ESPN’s approach foreshadows the future of the sport in the U.S. as, yes, even Americans get hooked on its global flavor.
Michael Ballack was pretty darn fun to watch in the prime of his soccer career, prowling the midfield for the German national team last decade like some uncaged jungle cat. Less so when running the offense for his club side, Chelsea, the English Premier League’s answer to the New York Yankees or Duke. In other words: the Evil Empire.
Unexpectedly, he’s been nearly as entertaining to watch off the pitch this World Cup, breaking down the highs and lows of a month’s worth of nail-biting, gasp-inducing, cringe-worthy, raucous displays of football — el juego bonito in all its multi-color, multi-cultural glory.
As a longtime international soccer fan, for me, one of the unexpected pleasures of this World Cup has been not the play on the field but the coverage off it. Of course, there’ve been worthy hijinks a-plenty courtesy of Colombia’s James Rodriguez, Joel Campbell and his upstart Costa Ricans, American youngster Julian Green and a bevy of other feisty breakout stars.
But ESPN seems to have finally realized that American soccer fans don’t want an Americanized interpretation of the sport. Part of the very reason we love the game is for its international flair (so yes, Ann Coulter, your fears about soccer’s creeping foreign influence are very, very real).
In 2014, they brought the world to us.
The network convened some of the game’s brightest global stars of recent years. Not just Ballack but former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker Ruud van Nistelrooy of Holland and Spaniard Roberto Martinez, current manager for English Premier League squad Everton, all of whom surprised with their fluency and wit on air. We also got to enjoy the cheeky stylings of the “Men in Blazers,” Brits Roger Bennett and Michael Davies of soccer podcast fame, offering up their driest of takes on the day’s results, usually with a punch line that came back to the England team’s own failings. It’s the sort of self-loathing humor that only the English can pull off.
And yes, for the #Merica first crowd, there’ve been native voices, too: retired goalkeeper Kasey Keller, a national team mainstay who also played in the German Bundesliga and English Premier League; one-time Major League Soccer scoring powerhouse Taylor Twellman; and former wild-haired, hippie dippie national team defender Alexi Lalas (whose Bill Walton-style condescension I could frankly do without).
ESPN’s coverage — halftime and post-game analysis as well as World Cup Tonight, a night recap broadcast from Brazil — has had the feel of a group of old friends getting together for a beer … and speaking with a bunch of different accents.
And hey, these guys have been as swept up in the action and are as crazy emotionally involved as we are. As fans and former players, they know how special this once-every-four-years tournament is. They’ve all brought their home nation rooting and rivalries to the studio. See Ballack’s glowing satisfaction after his Germans dismantled Brazil, or Van Nistelrooy’s silent one-man celebration after the Netherlands slotted home the winning penalty kick in their quarterfinal match against Costa Rica — and open disappointment when the tables turned against Argentina a few days later. It’s hard not to get swept up in that kind of passion for the game.
So maybe the United States doesn’t have to be the best at soccer for the sport’s popularity to continue to grow here. Perhaps it’s just the spirit that comes from being part of a big global party that’s most appealing. ESPN’s captured that spirit just right.