The World Cup! A tournament of frenzied emotion, spectacular goals, heroic upsets, and grand displays of athletic daring and skill. Or, if you’re watching it in the US: four weeks of shouting, relentless commercial promotion, disorienting cuts and changes of channel to make way for the college football game, and segments in which Alexi Lalas does pump-up speeches for the US team that no one in the US team will ever listen to; a global exhibition of Clint Dempsey’s ongoing quest to assemble vowels and consonants into an order that resembles words; a month-long celebration of the festival that is Landon Donovan’s personality.
At a time when things are clicking on the pitch for the US men’s national team and America finally has a generation of footballers with the technical quality to challenge the world’s best, there’s been something faintly reassuring about Fox Sports’ approach to this tournament. Whereas the USMNT is now a cosmopolitan ensemble of feather-fine talents, the Fox team is the equivalent of a farmers’ league XI that hoofs it long and hopes for the best.
Four years on from the dumbumvirate debacle of its coverage in Russia, Fox is back, and worse than ever. In a world of so much flux, in which so many human connections seem so ephemeral, Fox’s commitment to a losing team – Squeaky Stuey Holden on the match call, Lalas spouting nonsense on set, and Rob Stone holding the whole thing together with the desperate energy of a dad using his daughter’s 18th birthday celebration as a showcase for his own comedic talent – is something we can all get behind.
From the moment that Stone called Doha “Dosa” ahead of the opening match – between the capital of a small oil state on the Gulf and a fermented south Indian pancake, who’s really insisting on the distinction? – then promptly vanished from Fox’s coverage for the next three days, the US host English-language broadcaster of this World Cup has offered up a feast of gaffes, stupidity, and unconquerable on-air awkwardness for American viewers to enjoy. (The official explanation for Stone’s disappearance was that he lost his voice, but it’s possible he’d simply wandered off in search of a snack.) Things are, I’m reliably told, far better over on Telemundo, but those of us without the Spanish skills to appreciate the full vocal exuberance of that channel’s commentators are stuck with Fox. The only solution has been to embrace the misery.
Off-field controversy has clouded this tournament from the day Sepp Blatter pulled Qatar’s name out of the envelope in 2010, but you wouldn’t know anything about that from watching Fox. The BBC relegated the opening ceremony to an online-only stream, preferring instead to air a long report on Qatari human rights abuses. Fox went in completely the opposite direction, airing the whole ceremony and following up with “a look at exploring Qatar, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation”. Many have taken Fox to task for glossing over the rottenness at the heart of this tournament – its legacy of crass commercialization and death. But to be fair, this is not the first time that a group of Americans has blundered into a country in the Middle East without bothering to fully educate itself about the facts on the ground first. The correspondences between American military adventurism and international sports broadcasting may be faint, but the Fox crew has done its best to bring them to the forefront, applying the can-do spirit of Iraq 2003 to its coverage of Qatar 2022.
The acute ambivalence that many throughout the footballing world – including in America – feel about this tournament has been nowhere on display. Nuance, political context, a sense of proportion about a sporting project built on exploitation and influence peddling: all have been lost amid Fox’s non-stop on-air bonfire of jingoism and untroubled uplift. Even by their elevated standards, Rob Stone and co have outdone themselves this World Cup, chuntering and blundering around their Doha base with all the charm and worldliness of a set of Bush administration foreign policy officials.
In these circumstances you might expect Fox’s coverage of the matches, untroubled by politics, to be razor-sharp. You would be mistaken. From its Orientalist redoubt on the Doha Corniche (Arabesque motifs, casino lighting, no actual Arabs unless they’re from the Qatari tourism agency), the Fox team has set about its task with vigor: to beam all the tournament matches into the living rooms of America while being maximally patronizing to the country’s soccer fans. In those rare moments when Fox is not jamming a brand down our throats (“Here’s the player to watch segment, presented by Coca-Cola”, “Your first-half moment, sponsored by Verizon”, “Our player spotlight is hosted by the Volkswagen ID.4”), the network’s hosts, analysts, and match commentators seem determined to mansplain the sport as if we, the soccer-watching public of the United States, have spent the past four decades with our heads in the desert sands surrounding Lusail Iconic Stadium.
Insults to our collective intelligence have come from all angles: the constant, tedious analogies to American sports (stepovers and feints described as “dekes” and “hesis”, corners constantly compared to “pick and rolls”); the neverending quest to “contextualize” the world game by comparing whole countries to American states (“Qatar is the size of Connecticut,” we were told repeatedly on the opening day); the network’s embrace and promotion of the interminable “it’s called soccer” cause (who cares?); the strange extended segment in the run-up to USA v England about how much Harry Kane likes American football (ditto); the employment of Piers Morgan as a special guest pundit (no thanks).
On the field things may be developing nicely, but off it US football – or the version of it that Fox Sports serves up to us every four years – seems destined to remain stuck in a permanent 1994, forever on the brink of becoming America’s next big thing, forever hostage to a cabal of C-suite cable bros intent on translating this exotic, bewildering sport into the language of touchdowns, home runs, and alley oops for what they see as the country’s blinking, insular Yankee Doodle millions. This bizarre cultural parochialism does a disservice to both America’s players, now a sizeable constituency in European club football, and the legions of fans on these shores whose understanding of the sport is every bit as sophisticated as anything you’ll find on the terraces of Camp Nou, Anfield, or La Bombonera.
Take a moment to appreciate the full dizzying scope of Fox’s witlessness in Qatar. After Rob Stone noted, in the lead-up to the group match between Brazil and Serbia, that the Brazilians have won the World Cup five times – perhaps the most widely known World Cup statistic of all – a wide-eyed Dempsey exclaimed, “Wow, you really did your research!” During France v Denmark, match commentator JP Dellacamera described Kylian Mbappé as “a kid who’s 23 and already the whole world is talking about him,” an evaluation whose awestruck “already” suggested that JP has watched close to no football over the past half decade. Donovan started the tournament pronouncing Iran “Eye-ran”, witnessed Tyler Adams being corrected by an Iranian journalist for mispronouncing his country’s name – then continued to call the country “Eye-ran”.
Indeed the mispronunciation of foreign names – stadiums, players, whatever – has become a running joke on Fox’s Corniche set. Asked to offer a prediction before the US match against England, Lalas thundered, “I don’t know how they say it in the King’s English but dose a seero my friends to the USA,” helpfully demonstrating that he doesn’t know how to say “dos a cero” in the King’s Spanish either.
In a big tournament you always want your biggest players to show up, and Lalas, who often gives the impression that he’s being paid by the decibel, has not let the Fox team down this Mundial. From his post at the end of the panel, the big man in the Maga-lite suit has delivered his signature rants with all the enthusiasm of someone who’s blown past the discomfort of knowing that no one else on set finds him interesting or funny. Player rating: 10 out of 10. In support, Dempsey has been dim but fundamentally lovable, Dr Joe Machnik has brought all the authority of his credentials as a non-medical doctor (he has a PhD) and member of the Connecticut Soccer Association Hall of Fame to bear on the important task of quoting verbatim from the laws of the game, and Stu Holden still hasn’t stopped talking from America’s opening match.
Donovan, meanwhile, has pulled off the impressive trick of being both exceptionally boring and weirdly aggressive. In a sport that thrives on innovation, Donovan has developed a kind of anti-chemistry in his rapport with English co-commentator Ian Darke – built on dead air, the flat affect of a Benzoed accountant, and negging (sample own from the Spain v Costa Rica match: “Seven nil looks like an NFL score – you wouldn’t know anything about that Ian”) – that feels genuinely fresh.
Meanwhile, all of Fox’s decent commentators have been tucked away on relative World Cup obscurities like the Netherlands v Ecuador or Australia v Tunisia. Bright spots have been sparse. John Strong enjoyably described Cristiano Ronaldo’s attempt to claim a Bruno Fernandes goal as his own in Portugal v Uruguay as “a hairspray goal if anything”. Maurice Edu has been quietly impressive, offering astute mid-match analysis while eschewing the kind of reductive caricatures that often mar Fox’s coverage of encounters involving the less fancied football nations.
A special word, also, must go to Kate Abdo. Abdo is a great enabler of the hijinks and self-deprecating silliness that make CBS’s coverage of the Champions League so enjoyable. Here, however, as host of Fox’s World Cup Tonight show, she has had to contend with the sentient televisual own goal that is “American soccer fan Chad Ochocinco”. Ochocinco, a former wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, has for some reason been asked to document his fan experience for Fox at this World Cup – a brief that has yielded such insights as “I liked the game today”, “Ronaldo is my man”, and the 30 seconds of confused silence that consumed Ochocinco after Abdo made a gentle joke about Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrows. I haven’t tested this thesis exhaustively, but “get all of Chad Ochocinco’s fan experience by downloading the Fox Sports app” – repeated ad nauseam throughout Fox’s telecast – seems a good candidate for the collection of words in the English language least likely to induce the average American TV viewer to download the Fox Sports app.
There’s something almost religious about the experience of watching Ochocinco front up, night after night, with virtually nothing to say about the World Cup or the wildly popular sport it’s based on. That this man, despite possessing no charisma, sense of humor, or gift for sporting analysis, has managed to land a gig as the resident personality on Fox’s “fun” nightly wrap-up show represents its own kind of miracle, a wine-into-water moment for the Fox casting crew.
And this, perhaps, reveals the true genius of the Murdoch empire’s 4D chess, its dark and accidental power: Fox’s coverage of the World Cup is so bad it’s become unmissable. Almost as much as it is an opportunity to watch Mbappé blitz down the left wing or the Brazilian front-five tear opposition defenses to shreds, this World Cup tempts us with the fascination of Fox’s abomination. Glued to the screen by the promise of another Dellacamera insight that’s dead on arrival or a fresh Donovan dunk on Darke, we simply can’t look away. I’d offer more on this point but Lalas is about to do his World Cup power rankings, and nothing gets between me and my daily appointment with Lexi on the Doha disco tiles.