Big news came down Thursday when the North American triumvirate of the United States, Mexico, and Canada won a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup. But soccer fans can’t get too far ahead of themselves, what with the 2018 World Cup in Russia kicking off Thursday afternoon.
Here’s a quick primer on how to watch the current games.
When and where can coverage be found?
The World Cup will air exclusively on Fox properties, with programming divided almost equally between the main Fox network and Fox Sports 1, from Thursday through the championship match July 15.
Fox’s first game broadcast is Thursday at 11 a.m. when host Russia faces Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Coverage will began at 10 a.m. with a daily pregame show, “FIFA World Cup Live.’’
Studio programming will originate from the foot of Red Square in Moscow, with St. Basil’s Cathedral serving as the backdrop. The 27-by-35-foot studio space houses two shows, “World Cup Today’’ and “World Cup Tonight.’’
What is Fox deploying for resources and technology?
There will be 37 manned cameras to cover each game, including several that Fox says are state-of-the-art specialty cameras with “Super Motion’’ technology, the benefits of which will be emphasized on the broadcast.
Fox, along with host broadcaster HBS, also have at their disposal two behind-the-goal cranes, a helicopter aerial for each match, several wireless cameras, and two ultra-mini high-frame-rate pole-cams behind each goal. There are also 80 microphones at various spots near and around the field
Whose faces and voices are going to become familiar?
Rob Stone is going to become very well-known, if he isn’t already. Stone, who anchored Fox’s daytime studio programming during the Women’s World Cup, has a similar role here. The former Colgate soccer star and recent inductee into the Connecticut Sports Hall of Fame is Fox Sports’ lead studio host.
Other hosts include Kate Abdo, who was the “Women’s FIFA World Cup Tonight’’ host for the network in 2015, and Fernando Fiore, who made his English-language television debut with Fox Sports in 2016 during Copa America Centenario.
Hernan Crespo, who played in three World Cups for Argentina, will serve as a studio analyst on both “World Cup Today’’ and “World Cup Tonight.’’ Guus Hiddink, a Dutch former player and manager, also has a prominent analyst role in the studio. Hiddink has coached three different nations in the World Cup, including Russia.
The most familiar analyst to more casual fans, especially around here, will be former US national team and Revolution star Alexi Lalas.
Fox also is utilizing a bevy of reporters with various duties. Grant Wahl, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer, has the title of correspondent-at-large, which suggests he’ll be especially prominent with information and feature stories. Dr. Joe Machnik is the futbol version of Fox’s football rules analyst Mike Pereira; Machnik will be on hand to explain any puzzling or complex calls.
Who will be calling the actual games?
Well, this is where it gets interesting. Fox has six play-by-play/analyst pairings in place, led by the top team of John Strong and Stu Holden. Strong is the primary play-by-play voice for most of Fox’s soccer coverage, including Champions League, US men’s national team coverage, and MLS. Holden, a member of the US World Cup team in 2010, is Fox’s lead game analyst.
Strong and Holden are a capable duo, as is the No. 2 team of J.P. Dellacamera, a longtime voice of US soccer, and legendary keeper Tony Meola. But the catch is that they are the only two teams calling the games from the venue. Fox’s four other teams, including the pairings of Derek Rae/Aly Wagner and Glenn Davis/Cobi Jones, are not traveling to Russia and will call the games from a studio feed in Los Angeles.
It’s difficult to blame Fox for cutting a financial corner or two upon the US team’s failure to qualify; of course that is going to have a significant effect on viewership stateside. But there is no one like ESPN’s Ian Darke on its broadcast team to give important matches the accompanying vocal gravitas they deserve.
It also opens up the question of whether Fox — which noticeably limited its promotion of the World Cup — is as committed this year as it will be in eight years, when the matches are played in North America, and the US, presumably, will be a playing participant.