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Commentary: The World Cup lives up to its billing with a far-reaching appeal — even for neutrals

Commentary: The World Cup lives up to its billing with a far-reaching appeal — even for neutrals
Sweden's Ola Toivonen, left, and Mexico's Carlos Salcedo clash during group stage action on Wednesday, June 27, 2018, in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Sweden won, 3-0. (Joel Marklund/Bildbyran / TNS)

The early favorite was knocked out, a team beloved by locals led fans on an emotional rollercoaster, and there’s an increasing, undeniable sense that if the improbable can happen, it probably will.

These are not storylines from Major League Baseball, the recently wrapped NBA playoffs or even the World Series of Poker — it’s the World Cup, which after a riveting and unpredictable group stage has established itself the sort of ongoing TV watching spectacle that has no rival in international sports.

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Sure, the Olympics have a similarly passionate, flag-waving engagement, but consider a few particulars about World Cup 2018.

Germany, the previous champion and top-ranked team in the world, has been bounced after failing to score against South Korea, which in the final moments defeated it 2-0 Wednesday. That proved pivotal for Mexico, which after establishing itself as a dark-horse contender in upsetting the Germans in the first week, fell flat against Sweden, which topped the group when its collection of Nordic giants trounced El Tri, 3-0.

The games ran simultaneously on various Fox channels and yielded strange sights and sounds of announcers celebrating a game you weren’t watching amid various shots of fans in the stadium more glued to their phones than the game in front of them.

And that was only in the span of one morning.

Past age of 11 or so, most Americans consider soccer — or, to the rest of the world, football — with a charitable ambivalence dependent on the fortunes of its scrappy but reliably overmatched men’s national team or, as in the case of the 1999 U.S. women’s victory at the Rose Bowl and the men’s World Cup showing up in venues throughout out back yard in 1994 and again in 2026.

And spurred in part by NBC broadcasts of the English Premier League along with increased interest in the U.S. national team and its own soccer league, MLS, soccer coverage has grown more sophisticated in this country. After an initial, ill-fated experiment with shifting March Madness favorite Gus Johnson to the sport ended in 2014, Fox has sidestepped the usual reliance on U.K. broadcasters for a mix of locally grown and international talent to bring the World Cup home to American viewers.

When the U.S. squad failed to qualify for this tournament for the first time since 1986, Fox and its sports division must have been questioning their investment in broadcasting an event without a rooting interest for its audience.

The overall ratings were down from previous years but have begun to rally above the 2010 and 2014 installments of late, including games involving Mexico on both Fox and on Telemundo. But the televised action has been a feast for those willing to give the World Cup a chance. In fact, many of the aspects of the game that have served to turn off a neutral observer have been reined in.

Games haven’t just been competitive, they’ve had breathless finishes with more than 13% of goals coming in the final minutes — roughly twice as many as in previous years. And the most grim sight in soccer, the scoreless draw, has been a rarity with only a dreary, calculated match between France and Denmark finding both sides without a goal.

As an added attraction, no clear front-runner has emerged.

France with its inhumanly quick 19-year-old striker Kylian Mbappé looked unbeatable in flashes but conceded three goals against a weirdly mediocre Argentina in surviving a knockout round that shouldn’t have been that close. Spain’s ability to pingpong the ball to one another make it a longtime favorite, but it was knocked out as well after an uninspired deadlocked finish ended in a shootout loss to low-ranked Russia. Even the usually disappointing England has looked dangerous — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Further adding to the games’ appeal, the theatrical tradition of players diving to instigate penalties also has been less of a factor, appearing no more prominently than any given Houston Rockets game. Newly added instant replay (known here as VAR) has generally proven fast and effective in settling disputed calls. Even the indication of instant replay’s use — the referee drawing a rectangle in the air to pantomime a video screen — carries an immediate, border-spanning clarity.

And while it has been a shame to not see the U.S. and its 19-year-old star Christian Pulisic make their mark, there’s a symmetry to their absence with the national political climate entering a more isolationist mentality. But the rest of the world churns on, and in watching the fans who descended on Russia — shots of attractive, flag-stamped faces in the crowd for reaction has become a broadcast crutch — they’re having a fabulous time without us.

In maybe an effort to reach neutral fans, Fox has aimed to put an American spin on its coverage with a mix of analysts and former players. Most have been fine (though former U.S. keeper Tony Meola has a gift for empty gab to rival NFL counterpart Troy Aikman), but soccer still has a sound of its own.

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Free from keeping viewers riveted through commercial breaks — soccer matches consist of two uninterrupted, 45-minute halves — bad games are often called bad games, and with so much time to fill sometimes the less said is allowed to be more. With his taut brogue lending games a familiar, dry gravity, Fox’s Derek Rae criticized the “pedestrian” and “plodding” performance by Spain this weekend, and his broadcast partner Aly Wagner has been insightful and entertaining as the first woman to call the World Cup in the U.S. And John Strong and Stu Holden all but audibly shrugged as the eyesore that was the France-Denmark draw concluded

But no one has been able to match the energy of Fox’s Jorge Perez-Navarro, who has previously appeared on Univision and ESPN Deportes telecasts. Along with his elongated cries of “Goooooal!” that echo across town with every World Cup, Perez-Navarro has been enthusiasm personified, starting games with a giddy shouts of “It’s soccer time!” and yelling “Fire!” as penalty kicks are launched. His raw-throated passion offers its own trip abroad with a hint of the energy of Spanish-language broadcasts, and act as a reminder not every announcer has to sound like a cardboard cutout of Jim Nance.

Perez-Navarro can let his loose style get the better of him (appending a -san suffix to Japanese players’ names rubbed many the wrong way), but his livewire commentary as lent home-game dynamics to broadcasts. Most players are known by their nicknames, including LAFC’s Carlos “El Bombardero” Vela, but there’s room for criticism as well. “Who gets tired at 22 years old?” he asked dismissively after his partner Mariano Trujillo suggested Hirving “Chucky” Lozano looked spent during the match against South Korea.

But for all the drama, as of Monday morning, Mexico’s run was finished after facing the ever-intimidating Brazil in a hard-fought but ultimately lopsided match that finished 2-0. Regardless of dramatic finishes that allowed Colombia and Switzerland to advance, national hopes rise and fall even faster in the knockout stage — as they did for Japan as well in a breathless, last-second loss to Belgium. But what we’ve seen to get this far has been well worth the journey.

Maybe the U.S. can catch up and rejoin the world next time. Fortunately, we as viewers don’t have to wait so long.

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This post was updated to reflect Mexico’s loss to Brazil and Japan’s defeat to Belgium on Monday morning.

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