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By Terrence McCoy
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.
"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).
The Longo aftermath of Spanish-language soccer commentators isn't very promising. Colombian Ricardo Mayorga (Univision) is knowledgeable but hyper-fluent: He needs to shut up on dangerous plays way before new plays come up, so that his color narrator (responsible for the worst GOAAAAAL pig snort you'll ever hear) doesn't have to interrupt him so much. Then there are Radio Unica's commentators, the only real competition Cantor has. Jorge Ramos is the backbone, an excellent voice (though derivative of South Americans like Uruguayan Víctor Hugo Morales, perhaps the best ever). Fellow Uruguayan legend Alvaro Riet loves to fight with listeners, and Mexican Samuel Jacobo is so bad he's original, having created an awkward new style that allows him to actually stand up on-air to his condescending Argentine or Uruguayan colleagues. But his player knowledge is limited. Colombia's Hammer Londoño is neat, educated, subtle, and dead boring. And Argentine Hernán Pereyra knows fútbol but has lousy timing and rhythm.
Concludes Cantor: "Norberto was a friend, and a well-prepared man. That's a valuable thing in a TV world in which intellectual ability is becoming less and less important."