ESPN Host Bob Ley's Top 7 Tips for Watching the World Cup
After covering the World Cup seven times, the veteran sports anchor shared his secrets to understanding both soccer and the tournament with THR.
The popularity of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL have long overshadowed that of soccer in the U.S., but as all eyes are directed toward Brazil this summer for the FIFA World Cup, many sports fans are looking for a cheat sheet to get them up to speed on what they need to know.
Fear not, as The Hollywood Reporter talked with ESPN's resident World Cup expert Bob Ley, who after covering soccer for 40 years and attending seven World Cups, knows all the intricacies of not only the beautiful game -- but also the tournament itself and this year's host nation.
"Nothing educates you better for a World Cup than having done one, as the first time can be overwhelming because of the demand and complexities of it," the Outside the Lines host and SportsCenter anchor tells THR.
"It brings together the cultural, sporting and political nature of all these nations in a unique place every four years. Soccer itself is a challenge as there are so many teams and so many players coming from different clubs all over the world, so it is nearly impossible to cast an editorial net over it all," explains Ley, who joined ESPN just three days after the network's launch in September 1979.
Here are Ley's seven tips for watching and understanding the world's biggest sporting event.
1. Soccer or football?
The first thing you need to know is what to call the sport! While it is soccer in the U.S., the rest of the world calls it football (prompting some conflict with die-hard NFL fans.) "We call it soccer here but I am working with so many Europeans analysts at the host desk and to them it is football, so I go back and forth," says Ley. "I grew up calling the field a pitch and zero is nil. I have been around the game for 40 years so they are tough habits to break."
ESPN president John Skipper compared the debate to another international quirk faced by sports broadcasters. "It is a little like a Spanish accent on ESPN – we are comfortable now with some level of Spanish and English. We’re OK – a lot of our guys will say football, we’re still in the United States, so it is soccer and I guess in the TV guides it will be the 'World Cup Soccer Championship' but we’re comfortable with both [terms].
"You have to balance being authentic but also authentically American."
2. The teams and players to watch -- and why
"The Brazilian side has all the pressure on them. They were in the same position last summer at the FIFA Confederations Cup and Neymar had his first real test, and had a spectacular tournament," says Ley.
"Uruguay has been such a silently powerful team in the last four years, so keep an eye out on how Luis Suarez rehabilitates his [knee] injury."
Don't neglect Argentina. either. "Can Lionel Messi -- who did not have a great year -- find magic with his national team?"
The Germans have a lot to prove as well. "No European team has ever won a World Cup in South America, so it would be great if they can do it despite the home continent advantage. These are not friendly shores for the Europeans. Then there are the Italians, who played very well last year and will always play good defense."
Despite football being their national sport and the global success of the Premier League, England hasn't won for 48 years. "I love the tortured psychosis of the English. So much for them realizing that 1966 [the last time England won the World Cup] was four decades ago and they were the host nation. We shall see if they can get to the round of eight, which would be great for us at ESPN as there is great interest in the English team. I love watching how they struggle with this every four years."
3. Go high definition and juggle digital devices
"I recommend watching the matches on the best quality, high definition television that you can and the biggest screen, so you can appreciate the game even more," advises Ley.
"In this digital age, you can watch on two screens if you have a tablet or smartphone with you and learn about the players. Go to ESPNFC.com and find out about them from their bios. Double-screening is a great idea as the only time the games are simultaneously played are in the final group stage.
"You can binge watch like I just did Breaking Bad but in real time," he jokes.
4. Don't keep your eye on the ball
Just like following a puck in hockey, many viewers strive to stay focused on the ball during the whole match -- but Ley advises watching the action around it. "Learn to watch 'off the ball,' you will learn so much watching away from the ball in critical moments, like when people are making [corner kicks]. Don't just keep your eye on the ball," he says.
5. Watch the action live
Unlike in South Africa when the matches aired stateside in the wee hours of the morning, there is only a one-hour time difference between New York and Rio de Janeiro. "The timing is heaven – the first match is noon Eastern and the last at 6 p.m. Eastern. It is going to be an incredible advantage for [ESPN]," says Ley, admitting that those lunchtime games may have an adverse affect on productivity in the workplace. "The economy of the U.S. is going to take a six-week hit. Productivity is going to plummet!" he jokes.
6. Beware booking internal flights
For fans lucky enough to be going to the World Cup,Ley -- who will be stationed at ESPN's studio on Copacabana Beach where the surf comes right into downtown -- has some travel tips.
With 12 host cities and thousands of miles between stadiums -- the closest, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro, are 278 miles apart -- location-hopping will be expensive. "My guess is that the biggest issue is going to be domestic travel. Getting from city to city will be tough and some of the airports will have issues – you are better off driving if you can, but these are long distances," explains Ley, who has already been down to Brazil twice leading up to the tournament. "You are going to have some stress. The U.S. team has the worst travel schedule, so if you are following them you have the most miles of any nation's fans. If you are flying commercially, you are going to have some challenges," he says.
7. Safety and security
"You have to keep your eyes wide open like on any international trip: Where are you going to put you bag, your passport, your backpack?" he says, adding that there will be a flood of security.
In terms of construction issues, "The games will be played whatever happens; three of the stadiums have some questions about them – I would not want to be sitting in the stadium in Sao Paulo [Fortaleza], which has 20,000 temporary seats that have yet to be tested fully. It is almost a defiant point of pride now for the Brazilians. They will not have the roof finished, but their attitude is, 'We're doing this our way and lay off.'
"There have been some violent demonstrations, and all of the Brazilians are pissed off about the cost of it and the corruption that has been disclosed. The best thing that you can do as a fan is just understand that it is on their terms and just go and have fun."
As the host network of the 2014 FIFA World Cup when it kicks off in Brazil on June 12, ESPN will air 290 hours of studio broadcasts and 64 live matches across ESPN, ESPN 2 and ABC. The opening match on June 12 features host country and five-time World Cup champions Brazil vs. Croatia at 3:30 p.m. ET from Arena de Sao Paulo. The U.S. opens against Ghana on June 16 at 5:30 p.m ET on ESPN.