Fernando Fiore has covered soccer in the United States for decades, but if you don’t speak Spanish, you probably don’t know who he is. The man they call "El Presidente" aims to change that this summer during the Copa América Centenario, and that's not all Fiore is poised to change in America. The very fabric of soccer broadcasting may be on the verge of a shakeup, with Fiore in the middle of it.
American soccer coverage on TV tries to be fun. "Tries" is the operative word here. Whether it’s Alexi Lalas’s aggressive antics or the boorish squawking of the ESPN FC bros, TV producers think they can capture the natural anarchy of the gold standard of the form, TNT’s Inside the NBA. But surprise surprise, it almost never works.
Lalas defends himself as being "passionate," but usually his analysis just sounds like he’s playing the role of passionate fan rather than actually being one. The NBCSN crew of Rebecca Lowe, Robbies Earle and Mustoe, and Kyle Martino are impeccably dressed and deeply analytical, but they more or less play it straight. The off-the-cuff, meatheaded entreaties to toughness, "heart" and manliness that stuffed shirts Steve Nicol and Craig Burley bring to the ESPN FC couch are intolerable. Like a lot of American soccer traditions, TV broadcasts strain for authenticity but often look like they’re playing dress-up.
Enter Fiore. The Argentinian broadcaster is a legend among Spanish-speaking sports fans in this country. FOX snapped him up last October to cover the Copa América Centenario this summer, the Confederations Cup next year, and the men's World Cup the year after that. His presence during Copa coverage thus far immediately makes clear what American soccer television has been missing: A genuinely joyous personality.
While a child of the land of Maradona and Messi, Fiore has lived and worked in the states since 1980. He holds his undergraduate degree from Montclair State University in New Jersey and has hosted shows on Telemundo and Univisión for decades, including a travel show with Sofía Vergara. He has three Emmys to his name. He became a star in the late 1990s as host of Univisión’s signature sports show, República Deportiva -- here's a taste of his antics on that show.
Fiore sat on the panel for a couple of US and Mexico friendlies in order to get his feet wet earlier this year, but the Copa América Centenario is his coming-out party for English-language audiences. A lot of English-speaking Americans have the vision of a wild ’n’ wacky Spanish host who's a whirling dervish of bluster and catchphrases, and Fiore does not disappoint in that respect. He’s even got a Lee Corso-style hat gag.
Fiore’s been developing his fun-uncle schtick for a long time, and seeing him run circles around a clearly confused Alexi Lalas has been a singular pleasure throughout the tournament.
The duality between Fiore and Lalas sitting at the big desk in the Fox studio puts Lalas’s shortcomings into stark relief. Fiore carries with him a seasoned performer’s natural confidence. His heightened yet deadpan exclamations are always perfectly timed, his movements balletic in their precision. (His reenactment of the DeAndre Yedlin handball is an exquisite example of this.) Lalas never actually looks or sounds comfortable when he launches into a rant. It’s the difference between a first-year improviser and Stephen Colbert. You can guess who is who.
His goofy jokester persona serves a subtle and unexpectedly necessary political function, too. The Fox producers have this idea to spring pregame host Rob Stone with fun facts about the countries playing that day. One such fact -- Uruguay’s houses don’t have street numbers -- was pushed aside by Fiore when he said he lived in Montevideo in a numbered house. Then there was the moment when he angrily pointed out that the official lineup sheets continually misspelled "Centenario." He had to remind panelist Herculez Gomez that Diego Maradona never won a Copa América title.
Fiore is no naïf -- the dude’s been covering sports on TV for thirty years. In between the antics, he offers sharp analysis and a fluid, effortless broadcasting style. His time as the host of Copa Tonight demonstrates a talent for when to blow up the segment clock and when to move things along. He's produced video pieces on Lionel Messi and the quality (or lack thereof) of South American soccer pitches for Fox, and he's been on the job full-time for only a few days. He's the David Alaba of sports broadcasters -- he can do everything.
We've become so accustomed to a certain type of strained energy in English-language soccer broadcasts in America. I don't think that we fully grasped what we were missing when Fiore came along. He's a wind tunnel of fresh air, bringing in his wake a new kind of pure, puckish love of both soccer and of the television medium itself. As the tournament has worn on, Lalas has warmed to this Argentinian Santa Claus, and you can see that they might blossom into a genuine comedy duo. If it pushes English-language soccer broadcasting in America forward, then Fernando Fiore should once again be recognized as The President.