Commentary

World Cup is … what? Can't hear you!

We might be able to learn a little about soccer this month, if we could hear the games

Originally Published: June 15, 2010
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

About a decade ago, I dropped my childish, xenophobic dislike of soccer. I stopped being the typical American idiot who complains about the lack of scoring, the rules against using your hands and all that incessant flopping. I learned to appreciate the game.

You reach a certain age -- let's put the number at 15 -- and the jokes about soccer moms and orange slices aren't funny anymore. And this year, I decided to graduate from benign appreciation to semi-avid follower. I did some reading and watched some matches and entered the World Cup with a base of knowledge equivalent to that of the average Italian preschooler.

[+] EnlargeVuvuzela
David Cannon/Getty ImagesSelf-expression? Sure, if the 'self' you're expressing is a bumblebee on steroids.

It was a good move. I found there's room in my brain for another sport; and even though I'm not going to subscribe to FourFourTwo any time soon, I have looked at the website.

This decision took place before I heard about the anti-World Cup Sturm und Drang from the far right. Don't know if you've heard, but apparently Glenn Beck and G. Gordon Liddy -- to name two -- think an appreciation of soccer in general and the World Cup in particular are two more loose bricks in the crumbling wall of American exceptionalism. (Here's one of Beck's rants.)

So there's that, too.

(I have to admit to a legitimate ulterior motive: Being able to watch live sports that begin at dawn and take me almost to the first pitch of the early East Coast baseball games. And then there's the NBA Finals and college baseball postseason, making this a monthlong Mardi Gras, nearly as good as October and March, for those of us who can claim sports-viewing as an occupational necessity.)

My shallow base of knowledge means one thing: I need help. I want help. I know it's not fashionable for sports fans to admit this, but here goes: I need the announcers. It's easy to complain about announcers when you think you know more about the sport than they do, but this is different. Left to my own devices, without the help of the trained eyes in the booth, I'm an Italian preschooler thumbing through a calculus textbook.

You can probably guess where this is headed. In order to listen to the announcers, I need to have the sound on the television turned up. And in order to have the sound on the television turned up, I need to expose myself to the infernal racket of the vuvuzelas.

There is some historical significance to these things in South Africa, although I doubt their historical roots lie in cheap molded plastic. They were used to call antelope during hunts; but as far as I can tell, nobody's hunting antelope in the stands. Who knows, maybe there are vast herds of antelope lining up outside the gates of all the stadiums, but I haven't seen the footage yet.

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AP Photo/Schalk van ZuydamHere's a hint if you're going to a game: Don't stand up in front of this guy.

It's not just the noise; it's the mesmerizing nature of the noise. It leaves room for nothing else. It's a consuming, overwhelming noise that eats everything in its path, including my friends the announcers. They're attempting to explain the offside rule -- even the pros have a hard time with that one -- and all I can hear is the buzz. Antelopes run toward this? Hard to believe.

Writers across the world have been straining themselves to come up with the proper way to describe the annoyance. It's a hornet's nest or a bee tree or some other insect-related misery. John Leicester, an international columnist for the Associated Press, put it simply: "The constant drone of cheap and tuneless plastic horns is killing the atmosphere at the World Cup."

Perfect. Atmosphere seems like a pretty big deal in an event of this proportion. And here's where it's different than other sporting events: The noise is completely free of context. I was listening to Italy-Paraguay on the radio Monday afternoon (I'm going all-out here, Mr. Beck), and after Italy scored to tie the game, the noise coming through my radio speakers did not change at all. The vuvuzelas were all you heard before and all you heard after. They were just as loud before as after.

Think about that. The volume and pitch did not change after a goal, an accomplishment that happened twice in more than 90 minutes. This, to me, serves as the perfect example of ruining a sporting event. It's worse than the wave and worse than scoreboard-generated cheering and worse than the worst NBA PA announcer (Utah, pick up line one). When the spontaneity is gone, the event suffers.

I sat through four World Series games in the Metrodome, and I don't think I will ever experience a louder sporting event. But Twins fans did not roar for nine solid innings; they roared long and loud when something positive happened to their team. They were probably prompted at times by the scoreboard operator; but for the most part, it was pure human emotion.

At the beginning of the World Cup, there seemed to be universal unhappiness with the vuvuzela noise. As the complaints mounted, a natural backlash to the backlash occurred. Still, stores in South Africa are running out of earplugs (and probably vuvuzelas). The French are blaming their subpar play on the racket. Somewhere, Glenn Beck is sharpening his chalk to blame President Obama.

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AP Photo/Hermann J. KnippertzGood idea! In Cologne, Germany, they ban vuvuzelas in public viewing areas and toss 'em in the trash when they're found.

In light of the widespread negativity, it's difficult to understand why FIFA would ignore the disgust generated by the noisemakers and refuse to ban them. (Unless FIFA has a piece of the concession.) This is the sport's worldwide showcase, and it's getting attention in the U.S. like never before. Still, nearly everyone is completely turned off by the vuvuzelas.

For an event this big, on a stage this grand, you're going to take the chance of sacrificing the appreciation of the sport for something as insignificant as a plastic tube of noise?

It seems that way, but there's a postscript: I noticed the Ivory Coast-Portugal game was far more palatable. Am I just getting acclimatized, or is there something else at work? Then I read where networks are taking matters into their own hands and using filters to minimize the background noise. In two weeks I'll be calling offside.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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