When the Only Soccer In the U.S. Was En Español

In the 1980s and ’90s, most of the sport televised in this country was in Spanish. An American writer says gracias

It wasn’t always like this, flicking to and fro from ESPN to ESPN2, to hear soccer commentary in English: Derek Rae rolling his Scottish Rs; Steve McManaman in sing-songy Scouse-speak; or the Manchester basso profundo of Efan Ekoku. Nor, for that matter, did you hear the flat American accents of Alexi Lalas, Mike Tirico, or Kasey Keller (and, thank goodness, not that in-between-the-pond affectation of Brad Friedel). No, there was a time when the only soccer in this country was broadcast in foreign languages, mainly en Español. And this wasn’t a bad thing. On the contrary: It was glorious.

My first World Cup, and the one that converted me to soccer, was 1982, held by coincidence in Spain. Combined with me exploring the atlas to learn the host cities of that country, I also started learning, if not how to speak Spanish, then proper pronunciation, not the kind of American-accented Spanish that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg got a Saturday Night Live send-up for.

The first announcer I remember was Tony Tirado, with the Spanish International Network, S.I.N. It was pronounced “seen” in Spanish, but soccer was perceived as sinful by the overwhelming majority here, something foreign, different, less-than-masculine, un-American, possibly socialist. But sinful can be exhilarating—right?—and it was for me.

Señor Tirado was a man of the world, who looked as if he could have been covering international film festivals or coups in far-off lands. He spoke a beautiful Spanish and although I didn’t understand (yet) he taught me about this new game, its ebb and flow, through his cadences and shifts in rhythm.

A few years later, I would watch Norberto Longo, a man so well-dressed and dignified (and slow and deliberate in his speech), that when my mother would walk into the living room, she asked me if he was a head of state or a noted intellectual (which begged for the retort—if I had been quick enough—“yes he is, he’s talking about soccer”).

By the time I studied Spanish in school, I tried to speak like Longo and although I was lazy with the homework (and never did become fluent), my instructors always complimented me on my pronunciation. “Where did you learn your inflection,” they’d ask, and with a straight face, I’d say, “the Spanish channels, for fútbol.” This made them laugh and won me over a new friend or two.

When I say the Spanish channels, there were only two back then: S.I.N., which became Univision, and Telemundo. Although, I should disclose, this website is owned by Univision, I loved them equally. They both televised soccer and presented it seriously, without any bells and whistles to lure the American masses.

S.I.N., if memory serves, did have the bigger events: the 1982 World Cup; the 1984 European Championships, which was another revelation; the 1986 World Cup. Every game, with those magic words, that still provide a tingle, vivo en directo. Then, as Univision, it had Euro 88 and all of Italia 90, with the wonderful Andres Cantor before he was famous. Again, every game live, free of commercial interruption, every team/country treated equally and with great respect.

Just before the 1986 World Cup, one of the local sportswriters in New York City (where I was born and raised) wrote that S.I.N in Paterson, N.J. would provide rosters of all the 24 teams if you sent a request. This was coveted information back then; the sports sections didn’t preview the tournament in any kind of detail, only in the broadest stokes and usually with inaccuracies or, worse, jokes at the sport’s expense. It seemed to good to be true, but I mailed the letter, and not even with a self-addressed stamped envelope. To my delight, a mini stack of papers arrived in a large envelope, with, as promised, each team’s line-up—and with the players’ age, number of caps, and club team. S.I.N could’ve thrown my letter in the garbage; there was nothing in it for them. But it didn’t. It was a thought I always cherished, that a complete stranger would pack an envelope of team rosters and send this to me for free.

There were other beautiful surprises: the Sunday games (usually from Estadio Azteca, almost always sun-splashed); the late-night Wednesday Toyota Cup every December, vivo en directo from Tokyo (from Tokyo!); the Michel Platini farewell game in 1988 (he wasn’t even Latino); Copa America (even if the 1989 version produced disappointing soccer and empty Brazilian stadiums, I was glued).

Two footnotes must be cited. PBS’s “Soccer Made in Germany,” which was narrated by a daft, endearing Brit named Toby Charles (a Welshman it turned out) who announced Bundesliga games seamlessly edited into 60 minutes. Sadly, that was cancelled by the mid-’80s. Then there was, at least in my hometown, a great secret, also on public TV (WNYC, on UHF channel 25 from the RAI International feed): a live weekly Italian Serie A game on Sunday morning, with players like Maradona, Zico, Platini, Boniek, Socrates, Vialli, Gullit, et. al. There was no hype, no pre-game show, just a single (old-sounding) Italian man reciting staccato play-by-play who would only get excited if there was a “bella gol.” A few hours later—and none of this was listed even in The New York Times TV guide—there was a long, thorough highlights show called Novantesimo Minuto (The 90th Minute), with a rotund host named Giampiero Galeazzi (known as the Bistecone, the big beefsteak). There were even midweek European games—European Cup; Cup Winners’ Cup; and UEFA Cup, if Italian teams were involved, which meant almost always in those years—live at 2:30, perfect since I was just getting home from school. The TV reception was awful; you had to grapple with your bow-tie antenna to get some semblance of clarity, before it flickered from color to black-and-white, where it usually remained. Still, it was invaluable, and magical.

So who needed American TV? Even when the 1982 and 1986 finals were televised on ABC and NBC respectively, they committed what I already understood as heresy: interrupting the game with commercials. When ESPN got part of the tournament in 2002—just part, there was still lingering doubt—I watched most of the tournament in Spanish. It was normal and hard for me to forget the times when soccer was kept alive, and cherished, in this country en Español. A gift is what it was, a free gift, by the way, that at least one American always wanted to say thank you for.

I’m sure Ian Darke will do his usual fine job for Sunday’s final–“oh, my word, Macca!”—but I look forward to watching it in Spanish. Gracias de mi corazón. Abrazo.