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On April 19, long-time Univision and (recently) Telemundo sportscaster Norberto Longo died of a massive heart attack at HealthSouth Doctors' Hospital in Coral Gables. He was 62, but a "young" man, and the most respected Spanish-language soccer commentator in the U.S. He and color narrator Andrés Cantor were the best sports team on Spanish-language TV in the nation. But press response to Longo's passing didn't reflect it.
Aside from the routine coverage by the mainstream media (an obituary here and there, including the Los Angeles Timesand the Miami Herald), the print media has treated Longo's death as little more than a footnote, while Radio Unica in Miami broadcast serious talk show host Ricardo Brown's moving eulogy (an honor, as commentators are given higher status than sportscasters); there was also a remarkable homage on rival network Univision.
The reasons for the slight have to do with Longo's aristocratic demeanor, his "Italian" expressions and hand language, his opinionated "Howard Cosell" manner, and the fact that many Hispanics resent Argentine aloofness as much as they do Cuban hauteur.
Among his peers there is a consensus about the hole left by Longo's sudden death:
"He paved the way," says Uruguayan Jorge Ramos, sports director for Miami's Radio Unica network and Telemundo's TV narrator before Longo left Univision to join Miami-based rival Telemundo in 2000 (Cantor would follow eight months later). "He and [pioneer soccer commentator] Tony Tirado must be respected. I worked with Longo in my last few months in Telemundo and it was a pleasure, because he was a true pro. He had a clear vision of the game and an absolute control of the language."
"I've only lived in this country for a little over four years, but I always turned to [Cantor-Longo] because of their accuracy," agrees Rafael Ramos Villagrana, distinguished sportswriter for Los Angeles's La Opinión, the nation's leading Spanish-language daily newspaper. "Longo knew soccer, and had the gift of words. When you have those two things, you can't go wrong." Still the sports section of La Opinión only published a small paragraph about Longo's passing the following day, and that was perfectly normal for Gabriel Ochoa, sports co-editor.
"We're not planning another story [on Longo] ... [freelance columnist] Alberto Schuster is going to write," Ochoa says via e-mail. La Opinión, these days, seems to prefer Jennifer Lopez. Still who knows whether a proper story would have been written had Longo been Mexican. "Even Univision's coverage [might have been more extensive]," said Ochoa, although Univision's newscasts, as well as its boxing show and popular República Deportiva newsmagazine, devoted key segments to Longo.
The Mexicans, who control the paper and are generally rougher, often despise the more smooth, fluent South Americans.
Longo belonged to the legendary tradition of Argentina's best sports journalists, and so may have suffered from reverse snob factor: At various points in his apprenticeship, he got direct instruction and/or inspiration from people like Héctor Vega Onesime (former editor of El Gráfico, one of the most famous sports photo magazines in the world), Ernesto Cherquis Bialo (co-author of Yo Soy El Diego, the authorized biography of Diego Maradona, who along with Pelé is one of the greatest soccer players in history), Jorge Ventura (one of the deans of Argentine sports journalism), and soccer authority Natalio Gorín (tango revolutionary Astor Piazzolla's biographer). Longo became an Argentine authority on soccer, boxing, and tennis -- his widow is Emilse Raponi, former Argentine top-seeded player, who once beat Steffi Graf.
When he first came to the U.S., he joined the now-extinct Spanish Information Network (Univision's predecessor) in Miami. In the late Eighties he worked on and off with Peruvian Tony Tirado -- the first regular Latin-American TV soccer narrator. Then he joined Argentine Cantor, known by Americans as the pig-snort "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAL!!!!!!!!!!!" guy who was on Letterman after the 1994 U.S. World Cup win.
Cantor is a well-educated fútbol fanatic who narrates soccer on TV the way it should be done: with plenty of pauses, skipping what you already know and can see for yourself. Longo was the uncompromising, smooth-talking color commentator, perpetually able to coin the right word at the right time. Besides his obvious expertise, he had great timing, humor, and the ability to balance professionalism with the feeling that he was actually in your living room. For him the World Cup meant that the planet was "united by a ball." The sport was a tool, and one of his credos was to remind everyone that "For God's sake, this is just a game, gentlemen!" He did this whenever things turned violent, as in the case of the faked injury by Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas at Brazil's Maracana Stadium during a 1989 America Cup game.
But Longo could be merciless in his criticism: His "We still can't understand what Müller is doing there" rants (about an overhyped Brazilian player) are legendary. Together, Cantor-Longo were organic perfection -- the passionate but usually in-control Cantor and the elegant, unpredictable Longo. They were far above the often mediocre world of Spanish-speaking sports journalism. (Mostly the real talent stays in Latin America -- that's another reason the untalented U.S. Latin sports press stinted Longo posthumously.) Together, they covered three consecutive World Cups (Italy '90, USA '94, and France '98), a rare achievement considering that TV networks usually rotate announcers.