Why Are Arabic Soccer Commentators So Damn Good?

Love, joy, Ben Arfa and the search for the perfect “GOOOOOOOOOOOOL.”

Supporters of Egypts national football team watch the match of the 2014 World Cup African zone qualifier second leg football play-off against Ghana in a cafe in downtown Cairo on November 19, 2013, played at the 30 June Air Defence Stadium. Ghana qualified for a third successive World Cup, securing their ticket to Brazil with a 7-3 aggregate win over Egypt. AFP PHOTO / MAHMOUD KHALED (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images)

You think you love soccer? You probably don’t love it as much as people in the Middle East and North Africa. Almost everywhere else, other sports compete for fans’ attention. But the Arab world — or at least a whole lot of it — has soccer monomania, and it has the commentators to match.

The English love their rugby and cricket. Argentines enjoy basketball and tennis. In Mexico, baseball is big. Throw in some auto racing and alpine sports for Italy and Germany. Table tennis has devotees across East Asia. And south of the Sahara, there’s distance running and more cricket — but not as much cricket as on the Asian subcontinent.

In the Arab world, soccer is the undisputed king. There aren’t even any pretenders to the throne. Camel or horse racing? They’re rich men’s sports. The people want soccer, so much so that even a decade ago, Al Jazeera was offering several channels of wall-to-wall action from around the world, beamed by satellite across the region.

A frequent host of that action was — and still is — Lakhdar Berriche, a jovial Algerian who has long anchored Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Spanish league. Back in the early years, he would jauntily flip his scarf over his shoulder and take viewers on a brief tour of the home team’s city before each match began. These days he’s the beloved face of competitions ranging from the African Cup of Nations to the Champions League. Cosmopolitan and conversational, he eases his audience into his telecasts like a warm bath.

But it’s during the matches themselves that the Arabic commentators really start to shine — and the bathwater starts to boil. The foremost among them may be Tunisia’s Issam Chawali. Balding and bespectacled, with the outward mien of a midcareer accounting student, he peppers his rapid-fire play-by-play with tidbits from popular culture as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of players past and present. He might compare the Netherlands’ Clarence Seedorf to past Dutch greats like Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, and Johan Cruyff. Or he might rhyme Tiger Woods and Robin Hood to describe the greatness of a goal by Colombia’s Radamel Falcao.

The words, of course, are hardly the most important part. Whatever Chawali’s saying, it’s all part of a massive crescendo as either team nears the mouth of the opposing goal, with a frenetic peak of volume and syllables when anyone scores. And that’s exactly than what his viewers expect. The nonstop verbiage of Arabic commentators — quite a contrast to the reserved interventions of their English-language counterparts — even provoked a satirical article suggesting they could be fired for leaving a few seconds of dead air.

To be sure, there are plenty of mile-a-minute talkers in other languages, too. There are also distinctive voices like the Argentine Marcelo Araujo’s nasal foghorn and the high-pitched shrieks of Italy’s Carlo Zampa. And there are founts of enthusiasm like the adoptive Americans Andrés Cantor (who made the Spanish “GOOOOOOL!” call famous here) and Ray Hudson (whose eloquence in describing the play of Lionel Messi reaches Ciceronian proportions).

But they can’t match the combination of verbal gymnastics, wacky references, and pure elation that comes across in an Arabic telecast. Just compare three calls of the same goal by the former Newcastle player Hatem Ben Arfa against Bolton in 2012: In English, it’s a great goal, no question — there’s even a Messi comparison — but it’s tough to picture the commentator’s feet leaving the floor. The French version starts off softly and barely increases in volume until Ben Arfa, a Frenchman himself, has completed his majestic run and the ball is already bouncing past the goalkeeper.

Now listen to the Arabic, or, even better, read the transliteration: “Ben Arfa Ben Arfa Ben Arfa Ben Arfa Ben Arfa Ben Arfa BEN ARFA BEN ARFAAAAAA!” followed by a full minute of hair-on-fire craziness involving invocations of Diego Maradona and other supreme deities. This is what soccer commentary should be like: one human being left awestruck by the on-field apotheosis of another, emotions overflowing too quickly for white-hot vocal cords to keep up. The exhilaration lasts long after the ball hits the back of the net, extending the moment in which we’re all that much happier to be alive.

It’s no less than the audience deserves. These days, much of the Arab world lives under the shadow of violence, intimidation, and curtailment of the most basic rights. But soccer there is about love and joy — and the commentators show it.


Daniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Twitter: @altmandaniel