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For Cup Coverage, ABC's Final Score Is Nil-Nil

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, July 15, 1998; Page C2

A few seconds after Zinedine Zidane, the new hero of France, had scored his second goal of the night off a spectacular header in the World Cup final, ABC analyst Seamus Malin seemed to take it almost personally. "Brazil," he snarled, "has been criminally deficient in defending corner kicks."

But wait. Replays seemed to indicate that on both goals, Zidane had been marked by Brazilian defenders who simply appeared to get beaten by two of the most brilliant goals of the competition, a superb individual effort by a man who carried his team and his country to the sort of glory they had never experienced.

The same cannot be said for ABC's coverage of the final. While hardly criminally deficient, the network was guilty of several serious misdemeanors, the most egregious being its reluctance to go back to the basics for one of the largest American soccer audiences it might ever draw.

It would have been so simple for Malin and play-by-play announcer Bob Ley to provide a basic primer early in the game or in the pregame to explain again what it means to be offside, the rules on yellow and red cards, the definition of "the box" and the difference between a clean tackle and one that results in loss of possession.

Of course, connoisseurs of "the beautiful game" might have been slightly offended. But at a time when soccer desperately needs to initiate viewers, Ley and Malin called the final as if most of the audience were conversant with the jargon of the sport.

The Disney cousins should be commended for airing all 64 games live (on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2) and repeating many of them in prime time. By the same token, their coverage in the final did not rise to the level of play exhibited by the underdog champions against the greatest team in the world.

Malin spent much of the early portion of the telecast bad-mouthing the French goaltender, Fabien Barthez. "I'm not a great believer in Barthez," he sniffed. Later, he was at it again. "Barthez is shaky. I think he's protected by a good defense."

Isn't that the whole idea?

Barthez was a maniacal marvel on Sunday, despite playing without his most experienced defender, Laurent Blanc, who was red-carded out of the final by a questionable referee's call. All Barthez did was throw his body around like a head-hunting free safety, stop a point-blank shot by the great Ronaldo and, oh yes, give up a total of two goals in France's seven World Cup games.

Finally, after that Ronaldo shot, Malin, to his credit, had to admit "His catching ability is great, and he doesn't give up the rebound. I think I might have to eat my words."

Malin was maddeningly ineffective with the telestrator, more than occasionally drawing lines on the screen when his director was already on another shot of a replay or using a different camera angle.

ABC also blew it by not having a sideline reporter. There was hardly any explanation of Ronaldo's ankle injury and no reason given for Brazil's decision to not take part in the warmups. Surely one of those crack ESPN reporters so persistent in their NFL and NBA coverage could have been pressed into service. Instead, we got speculation.

Ley also grated more than occasionally with what Red Smith would have described as "Godding up" the event. He frequently spoke in somewhat contrived hushed tones when buoyant enthusiasm seemed more appropriate. He's the voice of soccer right now, but he's still not The Voice of Soccer.

"Now, the moment the French nation has been waiting for," he said reverentially at the start. "Their team is on the pitch, and their anthem is in the final. . . . That's what the last month has been about, that's what the next 90 minutes are about."

Why is it that all the American announcers assigned to this event felt it was necessary to describe a score as "two-nil?" Why did they have to call it a "pitch" instead of a field? Why did they have to refer to countries in the plural, as in "Brazil are in trouble" when they'd never dare to do the same at any event back home?

Despite many shortcomings, the game itself made for compelling television, for all the obvious reasons. On Sunday, the pictures produced by the French world feed, supplemented by ABC's cameras and slo-mo machines, told the true story.

One lingering memory will be the shots during the playing of "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem. The French players were singing — and when was the last time you saw an American athlete do that, let alone network coverage of the anthem? Better yet, they had their arms wrapped around each other in a show of unbridled patriotism and team unity. It was quite a scene, from quite a team.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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