One of the distinguishing characteristics of Spanish and Portuguese language football announcers, play by play and commentators, is their cultural and linguistic dexterity, their ability to infuse a broadcast with the mix of local and regional humor, sports knowledge, incredibly descriptive language, and the mix of bon mots and football history and jargon that makes listening as enjoyable as watching. It is one of the pleasures of football watching for most Latin American and Iberian fans.
So when the biggest football event in the world comes along the last thing ESPN would want is to somehow scuttle this Spanish-and-Portuguese-speaking viewers’ linguistic treat.
Yet, if you have been following the World Cup broadcasts offered in Spanish by Univision and ESPN Deportes you will have noted that the latter’s broadcast is actually in Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese. That Portuguese is different from Portugal’s in the same way an Australian’s or Indian’s or Scot’s English might sound different from our own. The language is also differentiated by the fact that each culture adds its own idioms and, in this case, sports jargon.
The USA-owned-and-based ESPN offers their broadcasts in several languages globally and figured that since the experiment with swapping the languages worked the last time they tried it—because it allowed them to provide multiple coverages with a singular staff—they would repeat the double dipping this year too.
If you speak either language you know they are similar (as are French and Italian) but distinct enough. The rub comes if you happen to have Spanish as your native language, that is if you are one of the 386 million Spanish speaking inhabitants of the Americas, and you tuned in to listen to the Spanish-named ESPN Deportes (it would be Esportes in Portuguese) and heard Portuguese. If you did, you were probably miffed someone swapped your language without a care or a notice.
But it gets better: with so much live coverage promised, it seems they ran out of appropriate language commentators. So if you were listening to ESPN’s Portuguese broadcast you were listening to play by play in Portuguese but the commentary was by a Spanish speaking reporter who attempted to hide the fact he could not comment in Portuguese by using Portañol.
Portañol is what it sounds like, a mess of half-Portuguese/half-Español (Spanish). That mixture (which at its most annoying includes using the Spanish word when the Portuguese one is not known and assuming the substitution has gone unnoticed), is what Brazilians often call what Spanish speakers actually speak when attempting to communicate in Portuguese, such as they do when they visit Brazil. For Spanish speakers of the Americas, and for Portuguese speaking Brazilians alike, Portañol is blasphemy.
To add the cherry on top, Univision was running out of commentators too. So if the ESPN broadcast was irksome, one had to turn to the only other Spanish language alternative, Univision. But for their World Cup coverage, Univision’s Mexican-infused Spanish language broadcasts have been using the famed Bulgarian footballer, astute commentator, and ex-Barcelona star, Hristo Stoichkov.
The problem, though, is that Stoichkov’s Spanish vocabulary is limited, his expressed understanding of the cultural nuances of his network’s audience is similarly inadequate, and his accent is pronounced. This has prompted the Mexican play-by-play man to cut in on the footballer’s commentary whenever the Bulgarian runs into a cultural or linguistic cul de sac. So one was left without any analysis and with a play by play announcer who tried to cover for his colleague by taking on the two roles and repeatedly cueing the footballer for but a quick comment before breaking for commercials.
Meanwhile, missing in action is that other Spanish language play-by-play superstar, ex-Univision announcer and current employee of non-World Cup involved Telemundo, Andres Cantor (Goooooal!). He is actually doing radio on his own network, Futbol de Primera, which got the Spanish language radio rights to the World Cups of 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014.
Oh to be a fly on the wall when executives at ESPN Deportes and Univision debrief viewer feedback on their World Cup broadcasts.