When World Cup Is Ringing, It's Cantor Calling
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 1998; Page B1
PARIS, July 10 On Sunday, when Brazil plays France in the World Cup championship match in nearby Saint-Denis, hundreds of thousands of soccer fans in the United States will turn their televisions to Spanish-language network Univision and not understand a word spoken by play-by-play announcer Andres Cantor.
Well, maybe one word:
Although Univision's audience is primarily Spanish speaking, the 35-year-old Cantor is attracting a growing number of viewers whose Spanish vocabulary is limited to a few common expressions. His all-out fulmination when a player scores it can last 20 seconds or more has led to appearances on David Letterman, mainstream television commercials and a deal for a book that has been published in Spanish and English.
But beyond the signature moment a trademark cry for broadcasters in Latin America long before it gave Cantor cult-like status in the United States some English-speaking soccer fans in the United States apparently have turned to Univision, and away from English-language broadcasts on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, because of the energy and lyrical flair Cantor and longtime broadcast partner Norberto Longo bring to their description of, and commentary on, all the games. (And we do mean all the games. Unlike the English-language announcing teams, Cantor and Longo have been using a combination of technical wizardry, imaginative transportation arrangements and flat-out endurance to describe every game of the 64-game, month-long tournament live, concluding with Saturday's third-place match and Sunday's final). The fact that they speak another language is secondary.
"It is very, very flattering to know that people who don't speak Spanish are watching us," Cantor said in an interview here this morning. "I would like to think that they do it because we put more passion into the game, and passion doesn't have a language. . . . They might not understand the words, but they understand the passion."
Washington's E.J. Hogendoorn certainly does. Hogendoorn, 30, said he speaks no Spanish, but has he has been watching World Cup telecasts on Univision rather than on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, which have been combining to show all 64 World Cup matches.
"I'm annoyed by the color commentary by the American commentators who obviously don't know much about soccer," he said. "The commentators in Spanish add excitement. Soccer is a very visual game and it's easy to tell what's happening. I don't need to be told what's happening."
Others seem to share that view to Univision's benefit. An over-the-air network with 12 full-power owned and operated stations, eight low-powered stations and 27 broadcast-affiliated stations around the country, including WMDO (Channel 48) in Washington area, Miami-based Univision also is carried by 830 cable systems. Through Tuesday, it was averaging 804,000 households per World Cup match, while ESPN has been averaging 649,000 per game.
"There are two reasons many English speaking people are watching," said Univision spokeswoman Anne Corley. "A lot of people don't have cable, so they're watching the games on Univision because we are available on free television.
"The other reason is the exuberance of our game-calling. . . . We're hearing that some people watch on ESPN or ABC, but as soon as there is a goal, they're immediately clicking over to us just to hear" Cantor.
And Cantor is always there. Two to four games were played every day for about the first two weeks of the tournament, which was spread over 10 cities across France. But since announcers can describe the action as they watch it on a television monitor at the World Cup's International Broadcast Center in Paris, Cantor and Longo provided full coverage.
However, Univision officials wanted them on site for games played at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris. The problem was that on several occasions they had a limited amount of time to get from Saint-Denis to the International Broadcast Center located in the far southwest corner of Paris, through about 20 miles of heavy traffic or vice-versa to comment live on the next scheduled game.
So, Univision hired a helicopter to whisk Cantor, Longo and an engineer between sites. Of course, doing every game and calling every goal 165 going into this weekend's finales would seem to take a toll on Cantor's voice, but six months of voice lessons from Gina Maretta, voice coach for pop music star Gloria Estefan, taught him how to rest his vocal chords and maintain a robust pitch.
The result is one of the most distinctive voices in U.S. sports broadcasting. A dramatic save by Paraguay's Jose Luis Chilavert in the latter stages of a round-of-16 match, was met with a play on the goalkeeper's nickname: "Chila! Chila! Chila! Chila! Chilavert!" Under the right circumstances of play, French midfielder Youri Djorkaeff's surname becomes an extended, "Djorrr-kaiii effff!" And French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez's acrobatic last-minute save in his team's semifinal victory over Croatia prompted Cantor to squeeze off eight shouts of Barthez's last name in less than three seconds.
For those who understand Spanish, it's not only how Cantor speaks, it's what he and Longo say. They are known for regularly unleashing unyielding assessments of what is unfolding before them.
Again, the France-Croatia semifinal. The score is 1-1 early in the second half, but Croatia seems the aggressor.
"At least the sensation I get," Longo intones, "is that Croatia knows that they want to play. France gives the sensation that they don't know what they're after. They want goals, but they don't even think about how to get them. Croatia, with their limitations, with their excessive sluggishness, at least, knows the script and executes it."
Cantor's passion for soccer comes from his upbringing in Buenos Aires, where he followed legendary professional club Boca Juniors. As a teenager, Cantor moved with his family to Los Angeles and later graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in print journalism.
He served for a few years as a U.S. correspondent for an Argentine publishing company, writing about subjects ranging from politics and pop culture to soccer and boxing. In search of a sports announcer, Univision offered an audition to Cantor, who didn't have any previous broadcast experience. Impressed by his sports knowledge and on-air potential, the network hired him in 1987.
Cantor first began to attract national attention in 1990, serving with Longo on Univision's broadcast team at the World Cup in Italy. Viewers with only a limited interest in soccer tuned in to the network's coverage just to hear Cantor's catchy goal call. Back then, Univision showed 46 of the tournament's 52 matches, and Cantor and Longo announced from the network's studios in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Four years later, when the World Cup was held in the United States for the first time and otherwise-disinterested U.S. sports fans started to take notice, Cantor became a phenomenon. His following became so intense, he said with a laugh, fans would call the network complaining that his famed goal call was longer for other teams.
To set the record straight, Cantor said the length of the calls depends on "the beauty of the goal, the point of the game it's scored, and the impact on the match."
Lilian Thuram's goal that gave France a 2-1 lead in the semifinals received a a 31-second treatment. But a goal by Netherlands forward Dennis Bergkamp last week met all Cantor's criteria it was a tremendous individual effort, it came with a minute left in a quarterfinal and it broke a 1-1 tie. Cantor provided his trademark call, but with a heavy heart because his boyhood love, Argentina, was about to be eliminated from the tournament.
"I didn't know whether to yell or cry," he said, "but I had to call the goal."
Cantor, who became a U.S. citizen in 1991, said he might want to try announcing in English some day he said NBC approached him about doing the 1996 Olympic men's gold medal game, but nothing materialized but he is very happy working for the Spanish-language network, with which he has a contract that runs through 2000.
"I enjoy everything about it," he said. "I love soccer, I love the games, I love the World Cup. I enjoy every aspect of it. And I hope what I am doing conveys the excitement of the game to the viewers at home."
No matter what language they understand.
Staff writer Leonard Shapiro and special correspondents Bo Ketner and Marcela Sanchez-Bender contributed to this report from Washington.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company