Fox Sports’ US World Cup coverage is an unmissable abomination | World Cup 2022

The World Cup! A tournament of frenzied emotion, spectacular goals, heroic upsets, and grand displays of athletic daring and skill. Or, if you’re watching it in the US: four weeks of shouting, relentless commercial promotion, disorienting cuts and changes of channel to make way for the college football game, and segments in which Alexi Lalas does pump-up speeches for the US team that no one in the US team will ever listen to; a global exhibition of Clint Dempsey’s ongoing quest to assemble vowels and consonants into an order that resembles words; a month-long celebration of the festival that is Landon Donovan’s personality.

At a time when things are clicking on the pitch for the US men’s national team and America finally has a generation of footballers with the technical quality to challenge the world’s best, there’s been something faintly reassuring about Fox Sports’ approach to this tournament. Whereas the USMNT is now a cosmopolitan ensemble of feather-fine talents, the Fox team is the equivalent of a farmers’ league XI that hoofs it long and hopes for the best.

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Four years on from the dumbumvirate debacle of its coverage in Russia, Fox is back, and worse than ever. In a world of so much flux, in which so many human connections seem so ephemeral, Fox’s commitment to a losing team – Squeaky Stuey Holden on the match call, Lalas spouting nonsense on set, and Rob Stone holding the whole thing together with the desperate energy of a dad using his daughter’s 18th birthday celebration as a showcase for his own comedic talent – is something we can all get behind.

From the moment that Stone called Doha “Dosa” ahead of the opening match – between the capital of a small oil state on the Gulf and a fermented south Indian pancake, who’s really insisting on the distinction? – then promptly vanished from Fox’s coverage for the next three days, the US host English-language broadcaster of this World Cup has offered up a feast of gaffes, stupidity, and unconquerable on-air awkwardness for American viewers to enjoy. (The official explanation for Stone’s disappearance was that he lost his voice, but it’s possible he’d simply wandered off in search of a snack.) Things are, I’m reliably told, far better over on Telemundo, but those of us without the Spanish skills to appreciate the full vocal exuberance of that channel’s commentators are stuck with Fox. The only solution has been to embrace the misery.

Off-field controversy has clouded this tournament from the day Sepp Blatter pulled Qatar’s name out of the envelope in 2010, but you wouldn’t know anything about that from watching Fox. The BBC relegated the opening ceremony to an online-only stream, preferring instead to air a long report on Qatari human rights abuses. Fox went in completely the opposite direction, airing the whole ceremony and following up with “a look at exploring Qatar, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation”. Many have taken Fox to task for glossing over the rottenness at the heart of this tournament – its legacy of crass commercialization and death. But to be fair, this is not the first time that a group of Americans has blundered into a country in the Middle East without bothering to fully educate itself about the facts on the ground first. The correspondences between American military adventurism and international sports broadcasting may be faint, but the Fox crew has done its best to bring them to the forefront, applying the can-do spirit of Iraq 2003 to its coverage of Qatar 2022.

The acute ambivalence that many throughout the footballing world – including in America – feel about this tournament has been nowhere on display. Nuance, political context, a sense of proportion about a sporting project built on exploitation and influence peddling: all have been lost amid Fox’s non-stop on-air bonfire of jingoism and untroubled uplift. Even by their elevated standards, Rob Stone and co have outdone themselves this World Cup, chuntering and blundering around their Doha base with all the charm and worldliness of a set of Bush administration foreign policy officials.

In these circumstances you might expect Fox’s coverage of the matches, untroubled by politics, to be razor-sharp. You would be mistaken. From its Orientalist redoubt on the Doha Corniche (Arabesque motifs, casino lighting, no actual Arabs unless they’re from the Qatari tourism agency), the Fox team has set about its task with vigor: to beam all the tournament matches into the living rooms of America while being maximally patronizing to the country’s soccer fans. In those rare moments when Fox is not jamming a brand down our throats (“Here’s the player to watch segment, presented by Coca-Cola”, “Your first-half moment, sponsored by Verizon”, “Our player spotlight is hosted by the Volkswagen ID.4”), the network’s hosts, analysts, and match commentators seem determined to mansplain the sport as if we, the soccer-watching public of the United States, have spent the past four decades with our heads in the desert sands surrounding Lusail Iconic Stadium.

Insults to our collective intelligence have come from all angles: the constant, tedious analogies to American sports (stepovers and feints described as “dekes” and “hesis”, corners constantly compared to “pick and rolls”); the neverending quest to “contextualize” the world game by comparing whole countries to American states (“Qatar is the size of Connecticut,” we were told repeatedly on the opening day); the network’s embrace and promotion of the interminable “it’s called soccer” cause (who cares?); the strange extended segment in the run-up to USA v England about how much Harry Kane likes American football (ditto); the employment of Piers Morgan as a special guest pundit (no thanks).

On the field things may be developing nicely, but off it US football – or the version of it that Fox Sports serves up to us every four years – seems destined to remain stuck in a permanent 1994, forever on the brink of becoming America’s next big thing, forever hostage to a cabal of C-suite cable bros intent on translating this exotic, bewildering sport into the language of touchdowns, home runs, and alley oops for what they see as the country’s blinking, insular Yankee Doodle millions. This bizarre cultural parochialism does a disservice to both America’s players, now a sizeable constituency in European club football, and the legions of fans on these shores whose understanding of the sport is every bit as sophisticated as anything you’ll find on the terraces of Camp Nou, Anfield, or La Bombonera.

The Fox Sports crew get ready for their trip to Qatar before the World Cup
The Fox Sports crew get ready for their trip to Qatar before the World Cup. Photograph: Fox

Take a moment to appreciate the full dizzying scope of Fox’s witlessness in Qatar. After Rob Stone noted, in the lead-up to the group match between Brazil and Serbia, that the Brazilians have won the World Cup five times – perhaps the most widely known World Cup statistic of all – a wide-eyed Dempsey exclaimed, “Wow, you really did your research!” During France v Denmark, match commentator JP Dellacamera described Kylian Mbappé as “a kid who’s 23 and already the whole world is talking about him,” an evaluation whose awestruck “already” suggested that JP has watched close to no football over the past half decade. Donovan started the tournament pronouncing Iran “Eye-ran”, witnessed Tyler Adams being corrected by an Iranian journalist for mispronouncing his country’s name – then continued to call the country “Eye-ran”.

Indeed the mispronunciation of foreign names – stadiums, players, whatever – has become a running joke on Fox’s Corniche set. Asked to offer a prediction before the US match against England, Lalas thundered, “I don’t know how they say it in the King’s English but dose a seero my friends to the USA,” helpfully demonstrating that he doesn’t know how to say “dos a cero” in the King’s Spanish either.

In a big tournament you always want your biggest players to show up, and Lalas, who often gives the impression that he’s being paid by the decibel, has not let the Fox team down this Mundial. From his post at the end of the panel, the big man in the Maga-lite suit has delivered his signature rants with all the enthusiasm of someone who’s blown past the discomfort of knowing that no one else on set finds him interesting or funny. Player rating: 10 out of 10. In support, Dempsey has been dim but fundamentally lovable, Dr Joe Machnik has brought all the authority of his credentials as a non-medical doctor (he has a PhD) and member of the Connecticut Soccer Association Hall of Fame to bear on the important task of quoting verbatim from the laws of the game, and Stu Holden still hasn’t stopped talking from America’s opening match.

Donovan, meanwhile, has pulled off the impressive trick of being both exceptionally boring and weirdly aggressive. In a sport that thrives on innovation, Donovan has developed a kind of anti-chemistry in his rapport with English co-commentator Ian Darke – built on dead air, the flat affect of a Benzoed accountant, and negging (sample own from the Spain v Costa Rica match: “Seven nil looks like an NFL score – you wouldn’t know anything about that Ian”) – that feels genuinely fresh.

Meanwhile, all of Fox’s decent commentators have been tucked away on relative World Cup obscurities like the Netherlands v Ecuador or Australia v Tunisia. Bright spots have been sparse. John Strong enjoyably described Cristiano Ronaldo’s attempt to claim a Bruno Fernandes goal as his own in Portugal v Uruguay as “a hairspray goal if anything”. Maurice Edu has been quietly impressive, offering astute mid-match analysis while eschewing the kind of reductive caricatures that often mar Fox’s coverage of encounters involving the less fancied football nations.

A special word, also, must go to Kate Abdo. Abdo is a great enabler of the hijinks and self-deprecating silliness that make CBS’s coverage of the Champions League so enjoyable. Here, however, as host of Fox’s World Cup Tonight show, she has had to contend with the sentient televisual own goal that is “American soccer fan Chad Ochocinco”. Ochocinco, a former wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, has for some reason been asked to document his fan experience for Fox at this World Cup – a brief that has yielded such insights as “I liked the game today”, “Ronaldo is my man”, and the 30 seconds of confused silence that consumed Ochocinco after Abdo made a gentle joke about Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrows. I haven’t tested this thesis exhaustively, but “get all of Chad Ochocinco’s fan experience by downloading the Fox Sports app” – repeated ad nauseam throughout Fox’s telecast – seems a good candidate for the collection of words in the English language least likely to induce the average American TV viewer to download the Fox Sports app.

There’s something almost religious about the experience of watching Ochocinco front up, night after night, with virtually nothing to say about the World Cup or the wildly popular sport it’s based on. That this man, despite possessing no charisma, sense of humor, or gift for sporting analysis, has managed to land a gig as the resident personality on Fox’s “fun” nightly wrap-up show represents its own kind of miracle, a wine-into-water moment for the Fox casting crew.

And this, perhaps, reveals the true genius of the Murdoch empire’s 4D chess, its dark and accidental power: Fox’s coverage of the World Cup is so bad it’s become unmissable. Almost as much as it is an opportunity to watch Mbappé blitz down the left wing or the Brazilian front-five tear opposition defenses to shreds, this World Cup tempts us with the fascination of Fox’s abomination. Glued to the screen by the promise of another Dellacamera insight that’s dead on arrival or a fresh Donovan dunk on Darke, we simply can’t look away. I’d offer more on this point but Lalas is about to do his World Cup power rankings, and nothing gets between me and my daily appointment with Lexi on the Doha disco tiles.

US viewers accuse Fox Sports of ‘shilling for Qatar’ amid glowing World Cup coverage | World Cup 2022

US viewers have criticized Fox Sports after its broadcast of the opening day of the World Cup ignored the host country’s human rights record

Qatar has been attacked for its treatment of migrant workers, allegations of corruption in the bidding process for the tournament and its record on LGBTQ and women’s rights. Broadcasters such as the BBC and Telemundo chose to highlight those concerns in their coverage of the first day of the tournament, where the hosts lost to Ecuador after a labish opening ceremony that included contributions from Morgan Freeman and Jungkook from BTS.

“It’s 64 Super Bowls in 29 days… This is a once in a lifetime opportunity where people will come and celebrate football.” @JennyTaft speaks with Secretary General of the Supreme Committee Hassan Al-Thawadi before the opening match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup

— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 20, 2022

In contrast, Fox heaped praise on everything from the air-conditioning in the Al Bayt Stadium to the variety of food available to fans to the “very welcoming” secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup committee, Hassan Al-Thawadi. A puff piece with Al-Thawadi followed in which he was allowed to speak in glowing terms about the World Cup with no questions from interviewer Jenny Taft about concerns raised by journalists and human rights groups.

This is how BBC opened coverage of World Cup 2022. Stark contrast to Fox Coverage in United States. Please take a minute to watch. This is how this World Cup should be contextualized 🙌

— roger bennett (@rogbennett) November 20, 2022

Roger Bennett, the influential co-host of the Men In Blazers podcast, posted a clip of the BBC’s coverage and wrote: “This is how BBC opened coverage of World Cup 2022. Stark contrast to Fox Coverage in United States. Please take a minute to watch. This is how this World Cup should be contextualized.”

Grant Wahl, arguably the most prominent soccer journalist in the US, also tweeted a link to the BBC’s opening day coverage and wrote: “Big contrast between the Qatar regime-aligned coverage in the United States on Fox Sports and the coverage on the UK rights-holder.”

Other viewers on Twitter asked Fox to “chill out on the propaganda” and to stop “shilling for Qatar”.

In the lead-up to the World Cup, Fox’s executive producer said he did not believe viewers wanted to be distracted by off-field issues during the tournament.

“We really believe viewers come to us at Fox Sports for the World Cup to see the World Cup,” he said. Qatar Airways, the country’s state-owned airline, is a major sponsor of Fox’s World Cup coverage.

In contrast, Telemundo, which owns the Spanish language broadcast rights for the World Cup in the US, said it intended to take a stronger line than Fox.

“I do think we have to talk about the legacy we leave. By the time the tournament’s over, we [won’t have been] ignoring the geopolitical issues that might arise,” said Telemundo Deportes president Ray Warren.

The US team at the World Cup have made a striking, if subtle, statement about their views. They have prominently displayed a rainbow logo at the team’s training facility in a country where homosexuality is illegal.

“It is not just Stateside that we want to bring attention to social issues, it is also abroad,” said US head coach Gregg Berhalter this week. “We recognize that Qatar has made strides and there has been a ton of progress but there’s some work still to do.”

Qatar World Cup imposes ‘chilling’ restrictions on media | World Cup 2022

International television crews in Qatar for the Fifa World Cup will be banned from interviewing people in their own homes as part of sweeping reporting restrictions that could have a “severe chilling effect” on media coverage.

Broadcasters, such as the BBC and ITV, will also be forbidden from filming at accommodation sites, like those housing migrant workers, under the terms of filming permits issued by the Qatari government.

Instead, they will be permitted to film in public places in only three locations in Doha: the Corniche waterfront promenade, the West Bay area and the Towers area.

Capturing footage “near or within” government buildings, universities, places of worship and hospitals is also prohibited, along with recording on “any privately owned property”, even with the owner’s consent.

The restrictions are within a list of conditions that outlets must agree to when applying for a filming permit from the Qatari authorities to “capture photography and videography of the most popular locations around the country”. They also apply to photographers but do not explicitly refer to print journalists who do not film their interviews.

The rules do not prohibit reports on specific subjects, but barring crews from filming on private property – “including but not limited to houses, apartment complexes, accommodation sites” – is likely to make it difficult for them to investigate reported abuses, such as the mistreatment of migrant workers, or to conduct interviews on subjects people may be reluctant to discuss in public, such as LGBTQ+ rights.

The rules also say applicants “acknowledge and agree” they will not produce reports that may be “inappropriate or offensive to the Qatari culture, Islamic principles” or “may arouse ethnic or religious disturbances”. They add that organisations will be “held responsible for criminal and civil liability for any breach of the above mentioned provisions when filming”.

Qatar’s supreme committee for delivery and legacy did not respond to requests for comment on the rules, which are published in its official media portal.

Fifa said it was “working with the supreme committee and relevant organisations in Qatar to ensure the best possible working conditions for media attending the tournament, as well as ensuring that broadcasters continue to report freely without any restrictions”.

A spokesman said it would be “important to clarify that filming on private property in any country remains subject to approval of the owner/operator of the property”. He did not comment on why the terms include an outright ban on filming on private property.

A woman takes a photo at the new Flag Plaza, on the Doha Corniche, Qatar.
The new Flag Plaza, on the Doha Corniche, one of three public areas in the city where filming by foreign crews will be permitted. Photograph: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

Journalists have previously been detained in Qatar for reporting on issues deemed contentious by the authorities. In 2015, a group of BBC reporters were arrested in Doha and spent two nights in prison while investigating housing conditions for migrant workers. Last November, two Norwegian journalists investigating conditions for migrant labourers working on World Cup venues were arrested and detained for 36 hours as they tried to leave the country.

James Lynch, from FairSquare, a London-based human rights group, said the rules were an “extraordinarily sweeping range of restrictions” that would make it difficult for TV crews to pursue non-football-related stories. He said: “It would be incredibly difficult to fully comply with these terms, if even filming near to private or government property violates the terms of a permit.

“This is likely to have a severe chilling effect on free expression. How many organisations will authorise reporting on Qatar’s social issues if to do so puts them at risk of ending up in court?”

The restrictions present an ethical dilemma for broadcasters.

The BBC and ITV’s stringent editorial guidelines promote impartiality and are designed to protect against undue influence, including from governments. BBC guidelines, which apply to all content, say broadcasts should not unnecessarily offend but stress the importance of free expression.

Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief at Index on Censorship, said the film permit conditions were a “definite cause for concern” and appeared to be “purposely ambiguous” so that broadcasters would “err on the side of caution”.

She said her gut feeling was She felt they should not agree to such terms but said it was “extremely difficult terrain” to navigate. “The question is whether there might be stories that they can still do within the realms of that agreement, and is it more important that they do those stories?” she said. “If the BBC is basically being shoved into a position where all they can cover is the glory of it, then that would be a bad outcome.”

Qatar is an Islamic country with an authoritarian system of government. Swearing, public displays of affection and dressing immodestly are seen as offensive. Homosexual behaviour is illegal. Posting material that appears to insult, slander or is culturally insensitive may also be considered a crime, according to travel advice from the UK government.

In recent months, Qatar appears to have softened its stance on several issues in an attempt to convince visitors that it is safe and tolerant. It is allowing the sale of alcohol at stadiums, for instance, and has said that gay fans will be able to display affection during the World Cup. It has not eased rules restricting freedom of speech, which include a law against spreading “fake news” online.

The country’s World Cup bosses have attempted to discourage discussion of wider societal issues. In an interview with Sky News last week, Nasser al-Khater, the chief executive of the tournament, told football associations to focus on football instead of politics. “This is a sporting tournament that people want to come [to] and enjoy. Turning it into a platform of political statements I don’t think is right for the sport,” he said.

The BBC, which will be offering “extensive coveragemedia”, did not say if it had agreed to or challenged the film permit rules, which are detailed in the official World Cup media portal.

A spokeswoman said the broadcaster had a “long, proud history of bringing major international football tournaments to audiences” and a “proven record of addressing topical issues as part of our coverage. This World Cup will be no different”.

ITV said its news and current affairs team had carried out “extensive reporting of the decision to award the tournament to Qatar and the questions surrounding the host nation’s human rights record and will continue to do so”.

“Our journalism will be robustly independent. ITV’s World Cup tournament coverage will focus on the football, but will not shy away from the controversies off the pitch,” a spokesman said