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"He was very opinionated, took no middle roads," Cantor remembers. "He was a sort of Howard Cosell of Hispanic journalism." Like Cosell, not all viewers loved his opinion. But unlike Cosell, Longo's problem was not his personality. It was just too bad if he thought your team sucked.
Despite their flawless record, Cantor and Longo -- who shared the booth in more than 2000 televised soccer games -- suffered from Argentina's "badly won fame" syndrome -- the country's well-known, if exaggerated, reputation for arrogance.
"In this overtly sensitive world of Hispanic nationalities that share the same language, we had a greater dialectical challenge," says Cantor. "In Argentina, journalists speak to Argentines, but here we speak to everyone. And some expressions that are common for us can be hurtful to some communities, so you need to have an enormous balance in the use of language. Norberto had that. But he also had a gutsy way, like Cosell, of telling it like it is." To understand this all you have to do is turn to Fox Sports Español cable network, which broadcasts programs narrated by some of Argentina's top TV play-by-play color men. It is common to hear words like "pelotudo" (bum, stupid), "culito" (little ass, little butt), inside jokes, and the referee-bashing chants of "HIJO DE PUTA!!" (son of a bitch!!) sent from the stands by the Argentineans, the most passionate and vocal soccer fans on earth. Mexican viewers (the majority of Univision and Telemundo's market) are not used to it, and Cantor-Longo were always careful to stay away from rough stuff. Still those "Italian" accents remained; they automatically qualified as outsiders, no matter how well they did their job.
During the qualification stage for the U.S.A. '94 World Cup, visitor Colombia humiliated Argentina 5-0 and became the favored team to win the world's most prestigious sports event. Sadly for them, they didn't deliver when it mattered, and Colombia packed its bags and went home. Longo's criticism of Colombian players was taken by some as a personal vendetta against those who'd crushed Argentina.
But Cantor differs: "Norberto was a journalist," he says. "He didn't watch the game with a flag on his desk."
Moreover, the fact that in 2000 Cantor-Longo took over the reigns of the Telemundo sports department shortly after the Jorge Ramos-Ricardo Mayorga duo left the network made it seem as if Cantor-Longo had planned a coup. The personnel changes don't appear to be related to a coup, but have more to do with Ramos/Mayorga as Uruguayan/Colombian vs. all-Argentine Cantor-Longo prejudice; calls to Ramos's present syndicated daily Radio Unica (WNMA-AM 1210) show Unica en Deportes -- with listeners praising Ramos and lambasting Cantor-Longo -- show more tension than a heavyweight championship face-off.
"People call and talk trash," says Ramos. "But maybe if other shows would be allowed [to do the same thing], people would talk trash against me. When you're a public person you're exposed. In any case, [personal attacks] are no longer part of our show. We're an open forum, but we try to keep it clean."
Accents and idiosyncrasies aside, the biggest problem some had with Cantor-Longo is the belief that Cantor took credit for something that belongs to all: the GOAAAAAAAL!!! pig-snort yell in pro fútbol. And Longo was guilty by association. It is that never-ending scream that got Cantor on Letterman. His instant-celebrity status after the '94 U.S. victory cemented the impression that he was the creator of GOAAAAAAAAAAL!!!, but it is actually a tradition in Latin-American soccer narrating. To many, Cantor didn't set the record straight vehemently enough.
"That fucker makes it look like it's his thing," says a sports journalist on condition of anonymity. "You gotta be kidding me. It's like saying Robert Horry invented the three-pointer."
But Cantor says he never claimed to invent anything.
"In all the interviews, from the very beginning, I explained I didn't. I don't take credit for anything. I only take credit for what I do." But he stops short: "I don't like to spit on the air. Let others do that."
Longo began feeling sick in Argentina. According to Cantor, he mentioned something about his left arm bothering him, but Longo attributed it to what he thought was the flu. Longo returned to Miami on the morning of Friday, April 18, and was admitted that same day at Doctors' Hospital. Cantor wasn't able to see him, but the understanding was that he was in stable condition and would soon recover.
"He was looking forward to work on the Mexico-Brazil match [on April 30], one of the most important games of the year."
Cantor tries hard not to break down, the way he did after Longo's death during a Mexican league game. The teams Atlante and Necaxa observed a minute of silence.
"It was the most difficult moment in my career," says Cantor. Then he spoke much louder than usual, to overcome his feelings: "We dedicate this transmission to the memory of NORBERTO LONGO!"
Longo is survived by sons Diego Martín, 33, and Rodrigo, 31 (from a previous marriage), and Federica, 12 (the daughter of Emilse Raponi, his wife of 23 years).