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TV And ESPN: Making Soccer Sexy, Making Fútbol Festive

Adriana Lima and friends in one of Kia Sorento's World Cup ads. (Courtesy, David&Goliath)

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This has been a tournament that has made America see why the World Cup is the premiere team sports event in the world. Why soccer isn’t soccer, but fútbol, “the beautiful game.”

For all the accomplishments, though, of the U.S. team; the dramatic last-minute victories of, say, Argentina over Iran; the shootouts with great saves; the balls off posts that would have given Chile a huge upset over host Brazil, I don’t know that the biggest factor has been given full credit.

Television.

Start with ESPN and its excellent packaging of the tournament. It’s been a great spring and summer for the first, and still the best, sports network, with the demise of the Miami Heat in the NBA final and the network’s simultaneous blanket coverage of the World Cup and Wimbledon. ESPN has brought the same Wimbledon-like ability to make a diverse set of announcers seem more like members of a theatrical or television ensemble than a group of jocks. With the World Cup, however, that diversity extends to black and brown skins and Latino or European accents, much to the consternation of right wingers like Ann Coulter.

The candor and camaderie of the announcers, the sophistication and good humor of the panel discussions, the clarity of the graphics are all spot on, as Ian Darke might say. (Fox has the 2018 World Cup; hopefully it can do something with its horrible graphics by then.)

Tim Howard making a save in the loss against Belgium. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Tim Howard making a save in the loss against Belgium. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

In many ways, ESPN has been the beneficiary of factors outside its control, including rule changes that make the game more exciting. The international feed has been sensational, much more up close and personal than the coverage in South Africa in 2010. And this time, no annoying drone from the vuvuzelas.

The camerawork gets better with each World Cup, though. I can remember when wide shots dominated soccer coverage, to the point where you could barely tell which one was Pele. Now it’s like any other sport on television — the wide shots are balanced by close-ups and middle shots that make for a much more involving visual experience. You can see what makes Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Tim Howard as great as they are. And who they are.

Not to mention all those great crowd shots.

US fans at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil Tuesday. (Julio Cortez/AP)

US fans at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil Tuesday. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Hand in hand with the better camerawork is the rise of high-definition flat screen TVs. Hockey and football have benefitted, too, but the old 4:3 boxy ratio really did soccer a disservice while the current 16:9 is perfect. Paired with HD technology, the effect can’t be overestimated in soccer’s rise, including the telecasts of the English Premier League. You can see the strategy developing behind the points instead of watching what seem to be random kicks.

The England-Costa Rica match at the World Cup. (Jon Super/AP)

The England-Costa Rica match at the World Cup. (Jon Super/AP)

There’s also been an entertaining synchronicity between ESPN’s always clever promotional spots and the commercial ads, both capturing the celebratory internationalism of the event.

Or in this case, American pride:

Despite the relative success of the American team, it’s been a marvelous international celebration, captured beautifully by foreign car companies.

Talk about making soccer sexy, at the expense of American sports, courtesy of Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima:

Then there are Hyundai’s #Because Fútbol ads, celebrating the passion of the sport, in more ways than one.

And wouldn’t you love to be in one of these VWs?

I saw some of that festivity in New York a couple of weeks ago. I was standing on Christopher Street, waiting for a play to begin at the Lucille Lortel Theatre as a bar across the street was showing the Argentina-Iran game. I noticed three dogs outside in Messi jerseys, one in a wheelbarrow.

Messi scored in extra time, the whole place exploded and the dogs went crazy as if they knew what had happened. No doubt they were responding to their owner getting excited. He came running out hugging and kissing them and off they went, in love with Messi, in love with life.

Lionel Messi scores the winning goal against Iran. (Jon Super/AP)

Lionel Messi scores the winning goal against Iran. (Jon Super/AP)

(Ed Siegel)

The next night, back home, my wife and I went to the local Salvatore’s bar area to watch the U.S.-Portugal game. I’m generally not a big fan of watching sports in bars, but the communitarian vibe at the restaurant, where new and old Medford meet, was terrific, particularly with the two U.S. goals.

Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal's match against the U.S. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal’s match against the U.S. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Perhaps because not that much was expected of the U.S. team, even the tying goal off Ronaldo’s fabulous cross didn’t dampen things as much as I would have expected. And the 2-1 loss to Belgium?

Obviously it was a heartbreaker to come that close and lose. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like the Patriots losing the Super Bowl or the U.S. losing a gold medal hockey game.

It felt like the U.S. joining the rest of the world in embracing the beautiful game.

Fans cheer for U.S. at a viewing party in Soldier Field on Tuesday. (Stacy Thacker/AP)

Fans cheer for U.S. at a viewing party in Soldier Field on Tuesday. (Stacy Thacker/AP)

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