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World Cup shows its cheekier side online

Sports sites, unable to offer live TV or radio over the Web, have their commentators frantically typing real-time updates and comments as the games progress.

Sitting at his desk with his hands on his computer keyboard and his eyes glued to the TV set, Sports.com commentator James Gill types frantically as a quick turn of events flashes across the screen.

"GOAL! USA 1-0 Portugal," Gill wrote from his desk in London. "John O'Brien scores from close range...Victor Baia struggled to hold the initial corner, leaving O'Brien to gleefully smash home. What a start."

For Americans who were asleep during the U.S. team's stunning upset against top-seeded Portugal in this year's FIFA World Cup, there's a way to relive the rest of the world's shock minute by minute: Sites barred from offering live television and unwilling to pay astronomical Net radio costs are turning to real-time text commentaries, creating a quirky new form of on-the-fly sports writing.

Many sites covering the World Cup in Korea and Japan are using online text commentary to add color to otherwise static coverage. Sites such as U.K.-based Sports.com and ESPNSoccernet.com, among others, allow fans to launch a separate window that constantly refreshes with up-to-the-minute commentary of the match.

There are signs already that soccer nuts are turning to the Web as an ancillary source for following the World Cup. Web portal Yahoo, which spent $35 million to $40 million to exclusively host the official site for the tournament, saw 79 million page views June 3, a 34 million page increase over the World Cup's first day of competition May 31, Yahoo said. Sports.com has also witnessed its traffic surge to 16 million page views since the tournament began.

Such interest may be too late for Sports.com, however. Shortly before the start of the World Cup last week, the site was handed to a U.K. administrator that will divvy up the company's assets and possibly sell the Sports.com site. London-based business adviser Baker Tilly, which was appointed as administrator, has said it plans to run the site through the World Cup.

Real-time text-based broadcasts are not new to the Web. For years, sports sites such as ESPN.com have offered Java applets that give information as games are played. The applets provide diagrams and statistics that update as the action in the game changes. For instance, ESPN and MLB.com offer features that continually update with a batter's strike count, player stats and box scores as the game progresses.

Some applications have gone further. During the America's Cup sailing race in 2000, software using GPS technology and animation allowed fans to track the positions of the boats in near real time.

Offering live text commentary has become a popular way to report soccer games online, but the World Cup promises to vastly expand the potential audience for such play-by-play, at least while it lasts.

The commentaries usually begin with a few lines of introduction to hype the match by sizing up both teams and their key players. Then, the "matchcasts," as they are called, offer line-by-line descriptions of play for every minute of a 90-minute soccer match.

"We try to keep it as simple and vaguely entertaining as possible," said Miles Evans, editor of Sports.com. "We try to not go over the top. You can easily offend people if you do."

Making a statement
Oftentimes, the play-by-play can be dramatic. The following sequence taken from ESPNSoccernet.com's commentary for the U.S.-Portugal game describes a five-minute period after U.S. forward Brian McBride headed in a pass from defender Tony Sanneh (although the site mistakenly cited the pass from team captain Earnie Stewart). Minutes later, Portugal responded with a corner kick from international star midfielder Luis Figo to set a goal by defender Beto.

35 mins: McBride dives in to head a Stewart cross and the net billows. It's 3-0 to the USA. History is being made!

37 mins: Portugal, in ruins, try to attack again. They force a corner.

38 mins: Figo forces two more corners. Then the USA defence can't clear and Beto hammers home from close range. 3-1 now. This is really hotting up!

40 mins: This is turning into a real humdinger!

For Sports.com's Gill, commentating is a balancing act of speed, efficiency and split-second quips laced with "good old English tongue-and-cheek cliques."

"Getting my own gags in makes it unique," Gill said in an interview. "If my mates read my commentary, they can see that I've done it."

Of course, not all comments are a hit with some fans. Oftentimes Sports.com is subjected to reams of flame mail, especially after matches in the English Premier League, where local passions run rampant. World Cup fans can also be unkind to commentator originality. One chat room on Sports.com is devoted to trashing one editor's comments about the Ecuadorian team's aspirations. Its title: "Sh*t 4 Brains commentators quotes please add throughout tournament."

Sports.com's Evans said he tries to emphasize balanced editorial standards to his staff. But given the country's obsession with the sport, passions also seep through.

"We're English people," Evans said. "When you write a France vs. Senegal commentary, there's not a lot of bias that can exist anyway."

But when asked about covering something closer to home, Evans admitted that bias sometimes gets in the way.

"If it's an England-France match, it's obviously going to be very hard to keep one's emotions in tow," he said. "But (we) try to be as professional as possible."