LAGUNA NIGUEL, CALIF. -- No one would know, looking at the nearly windowless brown and white building in this coastal Orange County suburb, that deep inside glows a small studio that has captured the imagination and rapt attention of millions of American soccer fans.
Not very many millions, of course. It is a sign of how divorced the world's favorite sport is from the world's richest nation that the two commentators bringing the World Cup to 500 U.S. television markets perform a kind of video magic in an unmarked light industrial building 6,400 miles from the actual games in Italy and in rapid-fire Spanish incomprehensible to most of their baseball- and American-football-loving Southern California neighbors.
To be sure, the ranks of American soccer fans are growing with the surge of Latin American and Asian immigrants. Even a fair number of non-immigrant soccer ignoramuses have found themselves drawn to the romance and novelty of Sunday's World Cup championship (which will be seen on cable stations throughout the Washington area), expected to attract 1 billion television viewers around the globe, and to the excitement and immediacy that the two broadcasters here have managed to bring to the game despite the linguistic, cultural and geographic barriers.
Norboerto Longo, the dapper color commentator on temporary duty from his base in Miami, and Andres Cantor, the acerbic young play-by-play announcer who commutes from his apartment in Manhattan Beach, turn what might seem to the uninitiated an almost static sport into a stirring rush of blood, sweat and stomach acid. If World Cup soccer is a 33 1/3 record, they play it at 45.
Even for an English-speaking viewer who can understand only a word or two, such as the name of Argentine star Diego Maradona, the game acquires an irresistible flavor of intrigue and potential mayhem. And unlike the English-language broadcasts on Ted Turner's TNT network, the two Spanish-language broadcasters politely point out, they never, never break into the usually nonstop action for a commercial.
Tony Oquendo, vice president of the Univision network, which employs Longo and Cantor, noted the company is the largest Spanish-language television operation in the United States and reaches 89 percent of U.S. Hispanics with the World Cup broadcasts. Such viewers, like much of the rest of the world, are soccer purists, prone to extreme action if anyone attempts to apply the usual American television marketing techniques to their game.
Cantor recalled the sad experience of Italian soccer and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who once tried to break into his Italian soccer broadcasts with mere 15-second commercial messages. "The fans nearly burned his station up," Cantor said, with a small smile of approval.
If there is anything that galvanizes and intrigues a neophyte soccer fan, that will lift a head from a newspaper or beckon someone back from the kitchen, it is Cantor's joyous full-volume cry "GOOOOAAAAUUULLL" at those rare moments when the ball finally flops against the back of the net, and a point is scored. Cantor, who has been watching Americans misinterpret soccer since he arrived in California at age 14, shrugs this off as tradition, something broadcasters in the rest of the world, at least the Spanish-speaking world, often do. But he acknowledges the importance of giving the viewer a feeling of release, after long minutes of tension and frustration.
"It's the climax of everything," he said.
In a series of games where the injury- and penalty-ridden defending champion, Argentina, has managed to stumble into victories through what seems to be divine intervention, Longo and Cantor have been careful to disguise the fact that they were both born in Buenos Aires. "I would be a hypocrite if I told you I wasn't deep in my heart wanting Argentina to win," Cantor said, "but to me there are 22 players and we are professionals and we balance ourselves with objective work."
Longo, 44, a small, handsome man who favors open-neck shirts off-camera, has been covering World Cup matches for various radio and television outlets since 1966. For the past 11 years he has worked in Miami, first as an American correspondent for Buenos Aires Channel 13, and now as commentator on boxing, soccer and other sports for Univision. In an interview, he apologized for his uncertain English and used his wife, former Argentine tennis star Emilse Raponi, as an interpreter. The lively, friendly Raponi now teaches tennis in Florida and is awaiting the December birth of their first child.
Cantor has no trouble with English. His father, an Argentine physician, brought the family to the United States in 1977. Cantor, now 27, attended San Marino High School in a wealthy suburb northwest of Los Angeles.
At least 40 pounds lighter then, Cantor starred on the school soccer team, playing every position but goalkeeper, and helped San Marino's usual corps of well-fed, ill-trained suburbanites beat some of the tougher, predominantly Hispanic schools from such less affluent suburbs as Temple City. "I used to write the commentary for the San Marino city newspaper, and the high school newspaper," he said with a grin, "so I was of course the best player on the field. Some people might not like reading that, but I couldn't lie."
He studied journalism at the University of Southern California but declined to fulfill the last few minor requirements, which "would give me the degree which I earned." He wrote for an Argentine sports magazine, El Grafico, then was recommended to Univision four years ago. Cantor acknowledged wedding plans, prompting Longo and Raponi to laugh and teasingly suggest Cantor made the proposal contingent upon an unlikely victory for Argentina on Sunday over the accomplished West Germans.
The Cuban-born Oquendo, who grew up in south Florida playing basketball and a little American football, beamed about the camaraderie of his soccer broadcasting team. "We know the game better than anybody else," he said.
Longo and Cantor say little about their competitors at TNT, whose audience, Oquendo calculated, is only a fifth as large. But if prompted they will scoff a bit at what they have heard, second-hand, from the cable network. Cantor snorted at the suggestion by one TNT commentator that the first Italian goal against Argentina should have been disallowed as offsides. "Maybe on TNT it was controversial," he said. "Clearly the goalie deflected the ball. It can't be offsides."
While TNT announcers accused the French referee in that double-overtime game of losing control and letting players dictate his decisions, the Univision team was kinder. "Maybe he slipped a little bit," Longo said. "But the referee gets tired, just like a lot of the players."
Someday, both men predicted, the United States will be as rabid a soccer nation as any other and such subtleties will be appreciated. "Soccer here has a great future, it could be a success," Longo said, "if the people in the soccer federation would have more contact with what is happening in the world in soccer, if the coaches prepare themselves better and have more information, and if they have stronger personalities. The players want to play, but the way that they teach it is not so good."
"I don't think there is any other country in the world where the youth movement is as great as it is here, millions of kids playing all over the United States," Cantor said. "We need the Americans to look at themselves, and set goals. ... It's a matter of getting it into the blood."
It would also help the viewing public, and advertisers, if the World Cup games were broken into quarters, rather than 45-minute halves, the broadcasters agreed. Their views are more mixed on the shootout, the crowd-pleasing exchange of penalty kicks that decided both World Cup semifinal matches after double overtime failed to break ties.
"It's a very cruel way to settle the final of a World Cup," Cantor said. Longo said, "It's not bad, but they extend too much the extra time. If they can't do it in 90 minutes, why extend it to 120 minutes?" He suggested eliminating the overtime, in which exhausted players can barely drag themselves up the field, and have the shootout right away.
Longo and Cantor said they have enjoyed the last few days of the tournament, not only because of the unlikely victories for their native Argentina but because the exhausting routine of two or three games a day has ended. Nothing is more draining for a broadcaster than trying to pull millions of viewers into the pace of a game that he himself is watching on a television screen.
"It's so difficult because you are not on the field, yet you have to get mentally like you are on the field," Longo said.
Near the end of the Italy-Argentina semifinal, Argentine midfielder Ricardo Giusti, grimacing in disbelief, was tossed out of the game -- leaving his team a man short -- for elbowing Italian midfielder Roberto Baggio. The alleged offense occurred far away from the ball, and Longo had no way to check the linesman's call.
Many people in the stadium in Naples missed the foul too, since they were watching the ball. Longo said he found it strange that the many Italian television cameras focused on the game failed to record the foul and replay it. Usually, he said, "they show everything."
Did Longo suspect a coverup? "It is possible," he said. "You never know."