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In a scary world, the calamity of Fox Sports’ soccer coverage offers a strange calm



In a scary world, the calamity of Fox Sports’ soccer coverage offers a strange calm

There was a time, about a week in to Fox Sports’s coverage of this super-sized double scoop of an international footballing summer, when a strange and bewildering thought occurred to me. Jules Breach was conducting proceedings with chirpy efficiency. Alexi Lalas had consistently been man-marked out of half-time proceedings by the resolute German defensive screen presence of Ari Hingst. The easy and genial contempt of the European headliners like Giorgio Chiellini and Peter Schmeichel kept the yee-ha Americanness of Fox’s coverage in check. And Landon Donovan’s ongoing struggle to maintain his hairline had somehow managed to sympathize America’s most boring man, a commentator so aggressively dull he could have made the storming of the Bastille sound like a trip to the grocery store. Had Fox turned the corner? Was the network that, just two years ago, tried to turn Chad Ochocinco, a man with seemingly no knowledge of or interest in the sport of association football, into a soccer “identity”, getting better at covering international football?

And then it happened. Clint Dempsey popped up on screen with a series of squawks and garbles that failed to cohere into a sentence. Carli Lloyd went public with the heroic take that Christian Pulisic could one day claim Lionel Messi’s mantle as the greatest player of all time. Rob Stone called the World Cup “the big dance”, helpfully bringing it into scale with the NCAA Division I basketball tournament. Intuit Quickbooks, Allstate, and T-Mobile – the main on-air sponsors – started to take on the allure of old friends. The feed of Hungary v Switzerland cut out 40 minutes into the first half so Fox could show a smallmouth bass fishing tournament instead. Lalas eased into his 200th reference to the Copa América as a “bar fight”. I breathed a sigh of relief. The old stalwarts had come to the party. Magic was still in the air. Those of us who imagined a summer free of the hockey commentators, aggressive sponsor promotions, and college basketball analogies on which Fox has staked its reputation as America’s Home of Soccer have been rescued from the tyranny of hope. We’re back, baby: it’s a month-long feast of international football, and Fox is still at the buffet, dribbling into the cheese platter.

The Fox hosts have consistently billed the network’s central LA set, which was created using cutting edge “extended reality” LED screens, as “the Fox football palace”. In non-extended reality it looks more like an ambitious bus stop, and the way the background has flipped between different cities and times of day (Cologne at night one minute, Miami Channel in mid-morning against the mixed-use high-rise of Brickell the next), has said something about the difficulties the network has had in staying on top of the cross-continental action, of giving on-field events a sense of shape and meaning. The 78 matches taking place across this summer’s European Championship and Copa América are the most that Fox has ever broadcast in a single international stretch. What should have been an unprecedented and joyous explosion of footballing color – the biggest dress rehearsal ahead of Fox’s coverage of the 2026 World Cup, which will be held on home soil – has instead turned into a dreary and predictable broadcasting slog.

These two overlapping tournaments could have been the occasion for a month-long exploration of the stylistic divergences between football at different levels – club and country, Europe and the Americas. To the extent Fox has done any kind of comparative analysis between the two tournaments, it’s been to cartoonishly emphasize the “physicality” of the Copa – as if the tournament with the broken noses, fan brawls, irredentist maps and chants of “Kill the Serb” is somehow a dainty exhibition of cosmopolitan finesse. What’s emerged in the process has often felt like a version of ChatGPT: all the elements of regular sports broadcasting – graphics, pundits, hosts, highlights – have been present, but something has felt consistently off, as if the whole thing, from Donovan’s crowning wisps to Geoff Shreeves’s on-field vaudeville sets, was generated by AI. It’s a wonder we’ve made it to the quarter-finals without Chiellini breaking out into two rows of top teeth.

To be fair, there have been bright spots in Fox’s coverage. Breach has conducted the on-set action during the Euros with the peppy, laser-pronounced delivery of a dolphin trainer at an aquatic theme park. Jacqui Oatley often sounds as if she’s narrating a second world war newsreel, offering a not unwelcome point of differentiation from the other commentators on Fox. Chiellini drops his insights with the confident authority of a man who knows he will eventually be played by Adam Driver in the English-language biopic of his life. Derek Rae commands respect thanks to his sly sense of humor and expertise in the important matter of German fan chants (“The crowd lets out a cry of ‘Berlin, Berlin, wir fahren nach Berlin,’ though they’re actually going to Frankfurt next”). And Owen Hargreaves has kept things mysterious with the riddle of his accent, often wandering from Munich to Calgary via Manchester in the space of a single sentence.

America gives, but it also takes away. For every step forward in Fox’s handling and understanding of international football this summer, there have been at least two steps back. From the pumped-up but vacant intro segments (the lead-up to the group match between Scotland and Switzerland featured a nü-metal soundtrack and a guy with a voice like a crab boil saying, “A dominating win can feel like destiny is on your side, and a crushing loss can feel as if all hope is lost”) to Lalas describing England as the Dallas Cowboys of soccer and Rob Stone inexplicably introducing the Canadian manager as “Princeton University grad Jesse Marsch”, a film of American provincialism has clung to the screen through Fox’s summer of soccer – which is a real shame, because this does a disservice to the millions of knowledgable and worldly fans the sport has throughout the country. Why can’t Fox do better?

Even the bits where the network has tried to bring the color of the tournaments to life have fallen flat. Lalas was dispatched to Cologne to deliver Maga America’s verdict on the city’s famous cathedral. “This is pretty impressive, just the size and the scope and the beauty,” he declared to an expressionless cathedral employee. Shreeves has been brought on as a kind of sideline comedian, a role in which the material has run so thin he recently resorted to making jokes about the size of his suit jacket (the magic of the Euros!). Meanwhile Michael “Timbsy” Timbs, a wet Englishman who seems a little too happy for his own good, has reported live from the fan zones throughout Germany. These segments, which have mostly involved Timbsy standing next to drunk fans going “Ehhhhhhh!” then dancing a bit himself and saying something like, “It’s amazing, back to you Jules”, have been an offense to both fan culture and Timmsies everywhere. Sorry Michael, there’s only one room for one Timms (Timbs) in this tournament, and it’s not you.

Lalas, predictably, has been at the heart of Fox’s slickest on-screen moves this summer, and despite a slow start – in which it appeared he’d been deployed as a clown, a pure American idiot to entertain the Europeans on set – he’s grown into the summer impressively. Ponying up in a pastel suite of summer suits from Men’s Wearhouse, his thinning orange locks swept into a Trumpy scroll, the Big A has commanded the desk from his far-right perch with customary charmlessness and belligerence. In a tournament filled with “creative moments of the half, sponsored by IBM”, Lalas often appears to be sponsored by IBS, launching into his uncontrollable verbal tirades (“HOLY SCHICK!”, “THIS IS THE NEW ROMANTIC WAY TO PLAY MY FRIEND!”, “VAR SAYS NEIN!”) with the projectile force of a bout of diarrhea. As Lalas has asserted himself over his on-air colleagues, Fox’s panels have suffered, with Daniel Sturridge (a richly unhinged talent Fox should be getting way more out of) reduced to shouting inanities like “They have to get as much points as possible!” and Schmeichel trudging through his lines like a disappointed dad while Lex sits poised at the end of the panel ready to land his zingers and power rankings (God, so many power rankings) and the dead air of Fox’s auto-generated Teutonic set threatens to suck everyone into the currents of the fake Rhine pictured behind them. Lalas is a man who would power rank his own farts, if given the opportunity – and the way things are going on Fox, he probably will come 2026. There can be no real improvement in the coverage of soccer in this country as long as this man continues to have a job.

On the other hand, the beauty of Fox’s soccer team is that it has so many different routes to an own goal. If the theme of the footballing summer is that players you maybe thought were past their prime are still among the elite – Pepe, Xherdan Shaqiri, N’Golo Kanté, Alexis Sánchez – Fox’s coverage has seemed determined to show that all the pundits you hated last time round are as bad as ever. Hockey maestro JP Dellacamera hasn’t quite hit the heights of last year’s Women’s World Cup, when he called the Ballon d’Or the “Ballon Dior”, but he’s sprinkled his match commentary with just enough shrieks of “Denied!”, “Ball in!” and “Shot!” to never release us from the ambient sense that we’re actually watching a low-stakes US college athletics meet. Stu Holden has squeaked through his shifts in commentary and on the panel in a series of increasingly loud suits, a perpetual intern. Warren Barton continues his one-man mission to do away with all the fancy continental nonsense of passing and triangles and playing out from the back and return the game to its roots in hard work, grit, getting stuck in, and “putting the ball in an area”. (After the round of 16 clash between Romania and the Netherlands, Barton noted of Denzel Dumfries: “Time and time again he went forward, putting balls into the area”. OK man we get it, you love crosses.)

Rob Stone missed a big chunk of the action in Qatar after losing his voice, but he’s bounced back to form in LA, earnestly adopting Fifa’s idiotic geographical branding by placing MetLife Stadium in “the New York, New Jersey area”, cementing his credentials as a company man by claiming the USMNT, following its abysmal Copa exit, “needs to go big” with its next managerial appointment “like Fox Sports did when they hired Tom Brady”, and describing Cristiano Ronaldo as “the man in the hat”, simply because at that point in time, pictured on screen, Ronaldo happened to be wearing a hat.

And then, of course, there’s Donovan – Fox’s star man in the gantry, a lawn mower made flesh and blood. After Nico Williams missed an easy header in front of goal early in Spain’s group match against Italy, Donovan flatly intoned, “What a chance this is for Nico Williams, he’s going to have nightmares about this Ian” – and you could tell that the nightmare had already begun with Donovan’s delivery, the syllables unvarying in pitch and volume, the drama of on-field events communicated with all the emotional intensity of a dot matrix printer. But Donovan has range, and this is what makes him so magnetic as a media performer. At one point during Serbia v England Ian Darke asked him a question and Donovan simply … didn’t respond. The great commentators have the gift of letting the action speak for itself; Donovan has the gift of just not speaking. It’s a rare talent that can take all the excitement of international football and drain it of any semblance of life, but this is the unique gift that keeps the Fox suits coming back to the Donovanian well, year after year. The Covid pandemic will be nothing next to the mass extinction event likely once this man is set loose on a World Cup on home soil.

Also in Germany for the duration of the Euros is Tom Rinaldi, who’s been unleashed on Europe to make the old continent pay for its sins in a kind of reverse Marshall plan. Rinaldi, from what I can gather, is a pitchside “poet” whose main function on Fox is to bulk up the broadcast with a few minutes of over-written filler; his career, in other words, is a tribute to American bloat. Some of his best work this tournament came in the minutes before kick-off in the group match between France and the Netherlands. With Kylian Mbappé out of the starting XI, “the glare and all of its weight for France falls to Griezmann”, Rinaldi informed viewers, pronouncing it “Grease-mann” to complement his aggressively mixed metaphor. (Can a glare have weight? On Fox Sports in the year of our lord 2024, it can.) “Remember, Grease-mann is a huge star in his own right,” Rinaldi continued, pointlessly. “Masked men everywhere here for Lay Bloo. Grease-mann? He’s the man in the spotlight Jules, we can’t wait.”

Mangled pronunciations have decorated Fox’s coverage of these two tournaments, establishing the network’s bona fides as a center of American exceptionalism untroubled by foreign linguistic norms. Lalas has chomped out Didier Deschamps as “Deh-shomps” and parped Christoph Baumgartner as “Bum gardener”; Aurélien Tchouaméni has emerged, from various lips, as “Chew-many”, “Shao-mayny”, “Chewa-mayny”, and “Chow-mania”; Dellacamara mixed James Rodríguez with tahini, garlic, olive oil and chickpeas to produce “Hummus Rodríguez”. For the Romanian team – with its bewildering battery of Mans, Marins, Burcǎs, Bancus, Stancius, Drăgușes and Drăgușins – the Fox commentators have done whatever they want, sidestepping the messy business of matching the sounds in their mouths to the letters on the page altogether and randomly calling players “Borker”, “Marine” or “Goose” as necessary. Country-level name changes have proved even more confounding. Czechia has become “Checkyaaaa”. Türkiye? Turkey yay!

On a match call early in the Euros, Donovan told Darke, “I keep saying every game outdoes the next one, and this for me is by far the best atmosphere”. In a way this verbal slip – he obviously meant to say that every game outdoes the last one – is the perfect summary of the unconquerable calamity that is soccer on Fox: they think they’re getting better but the opposite is true. The full Fox package – the witlessness, the tin ear and wooden tongue in commentary, the thumping Lalasian parochialism of it all – grows in power with each successive tournament. In a world of ceaseless volatility and flux, that’s proof of a commitment to mediocrity I think we can all get behind.

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