As of Tuesday, all 32 teams have played at least one game in the 2018 World Cup, with results that have already altered this year’s seemingly preordained narratives — from Mexico counterattacking Germany to death, to Iceland’s victorious draw over Argentina and late England heroics by Harry Kane. But the teams aren’t the only ones looking to make an impression: We’ve also seen the debut of Fox’s World Cup coverage, the first of three World Cups the network will cover after winning broadcast rights in a $425 million deal.
Like most of this tournament’s presumptive front-runners, the results have been a mixed bag — the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia was as derided for its on-field play as for Fox’s questionable presentation. However, since those opening-night stumbles, Fox has righted the ship, at least to a degree. These are your winners and losers from Fox’s World Cup coverage thus far.
Losers: Studio Analysts
There is perhaps no subset of soccer punditry that faces more scrutiny than studio analysts. At their worst, they provide an amalgam of sporting clichés — take a shot every time someone describes a team getting “punched in the mouth,” or considers European teams “technical” while noting South American “flair” — and scorched-earth hot takes, which in Russia have been emanating from Alexi Lalas’s fittingly redheaded dome. A good studio panel will complement those hot takes with more tactical analysis — ESPN’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup was boosted by current Belgium coach Roberto Martínez’s savvy input.
The Fox Soccer team’s biggest problem so far is their inability to articulate the nuances of the game. Guus Hiddink has a lengthy managerial résumé but hasn’t filled Martinez’s role capably. Case in point: Hiddink asked Clarence Seedorf in Tuesday’s lead-up to Senegal-Poland to “describe the African flavor” rather than to compare the technical styles of the Polish and Senegalese teams. Without the necessary balance between ruminative breakdowns of the players’ performances and headline-grabbing hot takes, Fox Soccer’s studio coverage is best left on mute in the hour that precedes kickoff.
Winners: Aly Wagner and Derek Rae
Though Wagner and Rae weren’t sent to Russia to cover any of the games in person — only John Strong, Stu Holden, JP Dellacamera, and Tony Meola are there for on-site coverage — the Wagner-Rae duo has provided the tournament’s best commentary. Wagner made history by becoming the first woman to call a World Cup game on an American broadcast, and has developed an easy rapport with Rae. (A great moment during their call of England-Tunisia came after Harry Kane scored a sitter for England’s first, when Wagner joked that it was Kane’s easiest finish since the one for Spurs that was originally — rightfully? — credited to Christian Eriksen during the Premier League season.)
Rae is a capable play-by-play guy, and if I’m being honest, I probably have some preconceived bias to favor someone calling a game in a Scottish accent. “There is drama for you!” just sounds better that way.
Wagner and Rae’s next scheduled broadcast is Thursday’s 11 a.m. ET clash between France and Peru — if you haven’t listened to them call a match already, make time for this one.
Loser: Dr. Joe Machnik
Joe Machnik — sorry, Doctor Joe Machnik — is the World Cup’s equivalent to Steve Javie during the NBA Finals or Mike Pereira during NFL games, brought in to offer insight on certain decisions made by the referees. And with Video Assistant Referee being introduced for the first time in a World Cup, there have been myriad opportunities for Fox’s commentators to throw to Machnik for his perspective on a key refereeing decision. Machnik, with decades of experience as a coach, referee, and broadcaster, is a sensible choice for this designation.
Unfortunately, like Javie’s contributions to ABC, what Machnik has offered is derivative at best — rather than break down the legitimacy of, say, a penalty being rightly awarded or not, he continually explains the VAR process. The one exception was the match between Brazil and Switzerland, when Machnik concluded that the refs weren’t in control of the game after the Swiss players repeatedly tackled Neymar to the ground without any deterrence. If Dr. Joe can provide more substantive opinions like the one about Switzerland’s Hack-a-Neymar going unchecked, we’d all be the better for it.
Winners: Jorge Perez-Navarro and Mariano Trujillo
Wagner and Rae aren’t the only commentators commanding the spotlight — that’s what Jorge Perez-Navarro and Mariano Trujillo are doing best. What they’ve lacked in traditional analysis they make up for in purely jubilant and entertaining calls. If you’re not smiling when Navarro shouts “I-I-I-I-I-IT’S SOCCER TIME!” when the game kicks off, or “READY. SET. FIRE!” when someone takes a free kick, you’re dead inside.
Granted, sometimes they get a little too eager — Navarro kept adding “-san” to the end of every Japanese player’s name when the team faced Colombia on Monday, and there is a fair bit of homerism for the Latin teams. But with so many games and commentating duos for the World Cup’s group stage, Trujillo and Navarro are a dynamic, refreshing change of pace. You don’t quite know what to expect from them, or whether Navarro will rupture your eardrum after a golazo.
Loser: Fox Highlight Reels
With the time difference in Russia, this year’s games are falling squarely in the middle of regular work hours stateside — or possibly before you wake up if you live on the West Coast. Unless covering soccer is part of your job — or you have elite multitasking skills, or can just nod off for an entire day without consequences — it’s almost impossible to check out every minute of every game. Unfortunately, Fox Soccer’s highlight packages are aggravatingly short.
They are pegged as “90 in 90” — 90 minutes of soccer in 90 seconds of highlights. I’m inclined to think most soccer fans who miss out on the action will need more to satiate their hunger for highlights; a minute and a half is barely enough time to grasp the context of the game. Viewers in the U.K. are blessed with BBC’s Match of the Day, which provides more substantive highlights along with witty remarks from former player and Twitter god Gary Lineker. Some American sports offer lengthy highlights online — the NFL isn’t doing many things right at the moment, but having an 18-minute reel available for this year’s Super Bowl is inspired.
There are better, illicit ways to find longer soccer highlights online, but Fox Soccer can save everyone the trouble by just offering better packages on its YouTube channel. You already own the rights, so why not maximize this considerable investment?
Loser: Font Choice
Can one bad font choice derail a network’s sports coverage? Probably not, but with this year’s tournament opting for a chyron font that can only be described as Discount Comic Sans (it’s actually called “Dusha,” which I hope is Russian for horseshit) and Adidas’s jerseys turning 1s into 7s, this World Cup has been an aesthetic disaster.
Thankfully, we’ve had good memes.
Me: Comic Sans is the worst font, ever— Srđan Stojković (@escp_velocity) June 16, 2018
World Cup 2018 Font Designer: Hold my vodka
Fox’s loss has been Telemundo’s gain: Where Fox brought only two broadcasting teams to Russia, the NBC subsidiary brought all four of its groups and is airing 56 World Cup games (to Fox’s 38) on its main channel. Its coverage has also been substantially better. Even if you don’t speak fluent Spanish, good calls are good calls — none better than Andres Cantor’s iconic “GOOOOAAAAAALLLLLL” on Cristiano Ronaldo’s game-tying free kick against Spain.
Telemundo’s ratings have rivaled those of Fox thus far: The Telemundo broadcast of the Spain-Portugal game was watched by nearly 1 million people, and Mexico’s match against Germany broke the network’s previous ratings record. Cantor, speaking with the Los Angeles Times, said it best: “Passion goes beyond language.”
Unclear: Remote Commentators
While Fox’s decision to use remote commentators from its L.A. studio gave the network plenty of bad PR ahead of the tournament, it hasn’t had a noticeable effect on their coverage. The Wagner-Rae and Navarro-Murillo pairings are both calling the games from the Fox soundstage, and their enthusiasm hasn’t been undermined by the thousands of miles between them and the action.
It’s not ideal, but it’s at least a far cry from Fox’s laughable attempts to green-screen their way into the Champions League.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that this year is the first of two World Cups that Fox will broadcast; the network will broadcast three.