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First person: Why soccer is so much better in Spanish

Argentina players celebrate winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup football semi-final match between Argentina and Croatia at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 13, 2022. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)
Argentina players celebrate winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup football semi-final match between Argentina and Croatia at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 13, 2022. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

The 2022 World Cup wraps up this weekend in Qatar when Argentina plays France in the final.

Nico Cantor is a soccer broadcaster, primarily for CBS Sports. He’s doing Spanish language commentary for Fútbol de Primera at this World Cup.

NICO CANTOR: Thank you for having me.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So it’s like a clash of the titans here with Argentina v. France for the World Cup. What do you think?

CANTOR: Well, it’s been kind of a crazy World Cup with pretty big names dropping out very early on, Belgium, Germany, Uruguay in the group stage, and then Morocco, all of a sudden becoming this dark horse dropping teams like Spain and Portugal.

Everybody wanted that Argentina, Brazil semifinal. But at the end of the day, it’s Messi, his last opportunity to lift that World Cup trophy with Argentina.

And France in their second consecutive World Cup final. By Sunday, we’ll know that one of these two teams will have lifted their third World Cup. And obviously, I can’t hide my family’s Argentine. And I grew up in a very Argentine soccer culture. So my heart is going to be leaning more towards Argentina and moreover, for Messi, because I think at the end of the day, his legacy deserves it.

CHAKRABARTI: Really, Nico, what I want to talk with you about is I didn’t know about you until this amazing clip of how you called the Morocco Portugal game came up on my Twitter feed and you’re just like screaming poetry at the end of that game.

CANTOR: Honestly, the art was on the field. Because what we were witnessing was soccer history, honestly. Never had an African team made the World Cup semifinal. Never had a team from the Arab world made a semifinal of a World Cup. And it just came to me, you know, I was going to pray with them, too. And that’s how the ‘Allah Allah Allah’ moment.

I was looking left and right and the Moroccan press in the media tribune, it was like they were coming back from a panic attack. Their faces were flushed, tears dripping down the side of their cheeks, their chests breathing heavily in and out. It was just such a release of emotions, and I just wanted to match that. Because I thought that for the sake of soccer, for the sake of history, it really did deserve that.

And so many people have been writing to me from Morocco, from all not only Morocco, but from almost many Arabic countries. I met a very nice Syrian man here in Qatar and he goes, Nico, Nico, you are loved by the Arab world. You know, when you say something like that. I don’t speak any Arabic, but we all speak soccer.

CHAKRABARTI: I can’t imagine that you had planned any of that.

CANTOR: When I got the mic in the hand and I’m watching a soccer game, especially be at the stadium because my body’s heating up, I’m getting all sweaty. It’s like I’m playing the very end of the game.

You really feel, you can smell the grass, you can sense the people’s urgency. Once that final minute was approaching and I was just reacting to what I was feeling, too, because who doesn’t love an underdog story, especially at the World Cup. This is this is the biggest stage that soccer can give you. And Morocco responded extraordinarily, game after game.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I got to get real here, Nico. Why, I can’t even bring myself to say the name of the network, but when I watch most, not all, but most English language commentary in the United States for a soccer game, I get very sleepy because it’s so freaking boring.

Why is it so much better in Spanish? Like what’s the culture of Spanish futbol commentary that makes it so amazing?

CANTOR: Yeah, I could write a thesis on this. I think the Spanish language ear is used to this. They want their play by play in their analyst to be loud, to be insightful. The rhythms in the Spanish language permit you to have a lot of fun with soccer.

And it’s sometimes just different rhythms, sometimes it’s different speeds. I just think that the American ear is used to something else. I think in the United States, we really adopted what English people used to listen to their games. … It accompanies the game rather than, you know, debate and be controversial and give a strong opinion. Whereas in Latin America, you get a big mix of that credit.

But the more I hear other broadcasters and I say, oh, I like that maybe, you know, ways of describing things from, you know, I can hear a Mexican commentator, I can hear an Argentine or even Brazilian in different languages, like preparing for the World Cup. I was listening to Morocco on Moroccan TV.  Senegalese TV.

And sometimes there’s things that you hear, you know, sounds that you like and. And you could kind of give it your own way, just in the sounds of the broadcast and make it your own.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, full transparency. I don’t understand or speak Spanish at all, but I am watching all the games on Telemundo. And I mean, you mentioned who the commentators are. The Argentine one is your dad. The legendary, legendary Andres Cantor. … He is a legend in the world of soccer broadcasting. How much of an influence has your father been on you?

CANTOR: I would go to work with him on Saturdays and Sundays and be in a broadcast studio. Since I can remember, my dad is the cutest person ever. It’s very funny. He seems like all my friends are kind of like intimidated by him, but he’s so cute and he’s such a good person at heart that, you know, I’m so proud that he’s my dad professionally and personally. Once I started in this industry, he read every single one of my tweets. He saw every single one of my shows from start to finish.

And when I would get home, when I was still living with my dad, he would be correcting every single little thing. And when it comes from somebody so big in the industry, that criticism is a little bit tough to swallow sometimes. But at the end of the day, it was for my own benefit and having my dad next to me, helping me and guiding me has been a blessing. I couldn’t think of anybody else that could have helped me even more than him.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, speaking of the world of soccer journalism, I wonder if I can switch gears here a little bit, because sports journalism and soccer journalism lost a giant, Grant Wahl passed away in Qatar. I’m just wondering if you could reflect with me, Nico, on how much of a loss it is that Grant Wahl passed away.

CANTOR: I’m heartbroken. An icon of journalism. An icon of soccer in the United States. He was a champion for the men’s game and a champion for the women’s game, a person who fought for equality and human rights through his sports journalism. And I think that the United States, U.S. soccer specifically lost a pillar. When you see the outpouring of love on social media, everybody has a Grant Wahl story. Everybody.

CHAKRABARTI: And we should note that Dr. Celine Gounder, Grant Wahl’s wife, has said on social media that Grant Wahl died of an ascending aortic aneurysm, which was previously unknown and undiagnosed in him. And that’s what caused his tragic death. So a huge loss for the world of soccer and sports journalism there.

But my guess is that Grant Wahl would still want the world to continue to look forward to, you know, how this World Cup is going to wrap up. So I guess my final question to you, Nico, is let’s just imagine for a moment that Argentina carries home that cup. Do you have in mind what your hypothetical perfect last minute of the game might be?

CANTOR: Oh, my hypothetical, perfect last minute of the game. My heart is probably going to be racing at that point. I’m going to be … doing pitch side reporting. So I’m going to try to keep it professional. But that it would be scenes, absolute scenes I couldn’t even imagine.

I would love to be transported from there directly to Buenos Aires to see what the reaction in Argentina is, because everybody has been so hopeful this national team holds the country’s happiness in their hands. I mean, I don’t know what the idea of the last minute is, but if it’s Argentina up by one third of a goal, I’ll take that.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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