Tony Cherchi, speaking at an Apple event
Tony Cherchi, speaking at an Apple event Photo courtesy of Tony Cherchi

Lionel Messi's presentation as a new Inter Miami player on July 15, 2023, meant a lot to many people. For David Beckham, it was his biggest move yet as the team's co-owner. For Messi it meant securing a huge building block for his post-playing career, especially after guaranteeing future equity in the club. For the Major League Soccer, it was arguably the biggest marketing move in its history — as backed up by ticket sales, revenue and TV subscriptions. For soccer in the U.S. as a whole it provided the perfect move at a time when the country's on the cusp of hosting the Copa America later this year and the World Cup in 2026.

And for Tony Cherchi, it meant that he had arrived at the biggest stage yet of his illustrious career.

Cherchi played master of ceremony that night as football fans from all over the world tuned in to witness arguably the biggest player in history bring his talents to Miami. As it turned out, conditions for the event where less than ideal after a major storm hit the area, resulting in a slippery stage, the sound equipment experiencing failures and, more importantly, the delay of Messi's arrival. Fans, however, endured hours of rain to see their idol and the event was a success, in no small part to Cherchi's professionalism and steady hand.

The Venezuelan is no stranger to the limelight. He worked at ESPN for 11 years, several of which were spent anchoring the network's signature show, Sportscenter. He's interviewed a who's who of the sport's world, from Thierry Henry and Diego Forlan to James Harden, Miguel Cabrera and even the late Pelé. In this stage of his career, he'll be playing a pivotal role in ushering in the next World Cup as a match analyst and pundit for the MLS.

We sat down with Cherchi to look back at his career, chat about Messi's impact on the MLS and discover what makes a good sports interview.

The following interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity

Ready for kick off: The early years

Most sports journalists were sports fans that found a way to make a career out of their passion. Where did your love for sports come from?

I'd say 98% of those of us who work in this field wanted to be athletes, to play a World Cup, a World Series, an NBA final. We wanted to be there. In my case, I wanted to be close to it and journalism offered the next best thing because of my love for communicating. My dad was crazy about sports. He's Italian so I grew up loving fútbol. But he arrived in Venezuela when he was about 20 so he also fell in love with baseball and that love went on to grow for all sports in general. So I grew up breathing sports.

So what was your first big break in the industry?

Well, I'd have to say there were two. The first one was for Venezuelan TV channel Televen. I always wanted to do TV and in the next to last year of college they gave me that chance. I had no experience, my resume was two lines long. First they let me work as a sports writer and after six months they gave me an opportunity to try myself as a reporter. But newbies had to report about every subject so I covered elections, justice courts, you name it. Looking back, that was really important because it allowed me to let loose and learn a lot about the craft. After a while I moved on to anchor the sports section of the newscast for eight years.

And what was the second break?

ESPN, for sure. That opened up the doors to the whole continent. It's a channel that, to this day, continues to be recognized as the premium brand of sports journalism on television. That's when my career took off.

Welcome to the big leagues: Honing in on his craft

Screen grab of Tony Cherchi on Sportscenter, ESPN
Screen grab of Tony Cherchi on Sportscenter, ESPN Screen Grab from ESPN

What was it like to arrive at ESPN and, especially, to anchor Sportscenter, its signature show?

Ever since I started to seriously consider dedicating myself to this, ESPN and Sportscenter were on my radar. I started watching the original Sportscenter in English and once the Spanish versions popped up in Mexico and Argentina, it became my dream to host them. I always tell the story that the most exciting day of my career happened when I was doing the casting for the Sportscenter desk in Mexico. I sat down and there was a monitor embedded on the desk in front of me, next to my notes. And when the casting was about to begin I lowered my gaze and saw my name in the famous Sportscenter typography and colors. It was a revelation, sort of like "I'm where I always dreamt of being."

I'm guessing ESPN helped you also find your own style, right? I mean, there's a school of sportscasters in Mexico and Argentina that are very loud and they've made a career out of being opinionated. Yet you've always seemed to go in a different direction.

Well, I don't judge that style. We are professionals but, in many cases, we're also fans. I have always made an effort to separate those two. You interview someone like Messi or Miguel Cabrera and there is admiration, obviously. But I think our role is to serve as connectors or bridges between athletes and fans. You may want to be more pleasant or closer or intimate with your interviewees but I believe that you have a job to do and you can't forget that.

For many years I made the conscious effort of separating both sides of my personality and it just becomes automatic at some point. I still have moments when I can let loose. Say, for example, with Messi. I had an opportunity to interview him recently and there's a piece of that interview that made it's way to his Apple TV documentary in which I told him that I wanted to thank him for how he presented himself off the field, his humility and his poise. That his behavior under the amount of pressure he faces means a lot to a lot of people, including myself. That was me expressing my genuine admiration. So I got to say that, but it's always a challenge to separate that side of yourself and fully commit to the professional.

Cherchi, Stoichkov, Zamorano and Zanetti
From left to right: Hristo Stoichkov, Cherchi, Ivan Zamorano and Javier Zanetti Photo courtesy of Tony Cherchi

You mention some of the people you've been able to interview thanks to your job at ESPN and then TelevisaUnivision and your most recent project, HUDD Sports. Who would be in your Mount Rushmore of interviewees so far?

Well, when I first started I remember the thrill of interviewing Venezuelan legends like Omar Vizquel, Andrés Galarraga, Miguel Cabrera. Those were my idols growing up so that was an honor. Then, I had the privilege of interviewing Pele before the 2002 World Cup, not just a football icon but one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Well, Messi, obviously, which is the best fútbol player I've ever seen. Thierry Henry has to be there. Miguel Cabrera who I got to interview after he won the triple crown. I've been fortunate to interview quite a few.

And who's missing? Who would be the subject of your ideal interview?

Well, to me the ideal interview has to tick several boxes. It should be a personality that you feel has a lot to say. It should also be someone who hasn't sat down to do many interviews, who still has some mystery. So I'd go with Michael Jordan, not only because of the name itself but because I believe he was the most impactful athlete in history, both in and out of the arena. He's the guy who invented "athletes as brands". He was a hero to many and a villain to many others. Plus he usually doesn't do many interviews.

Taking his talents to South Beach: Arriving at MLS

Tony Cherchi interviews Josef Martinez, then with Inter Miami
Tony Cherchi interviews Josef Martinez, then with Inter Miami Photo courtesy of Tony Cherchi

How has the transition to the MLS been for you so far?

Well, the truth is that it has given me the possibility to be center stage, covering a league that I believe, in terms of fútbol, is among the ones that has grown the most in the last ten years. And well, being front row and center to see how everything exploded and multiplied with the arrival of Messi to MLS has been something special.

How has Messi's arrival changed MLS in your opinion?

MLS has been a league that has grown a lot at the regional level, people are very devoted to their team, stadiums are filled even in new venues. But the next step for the League is to go from that into a global league. Messi's arrival gives it a bit of that. It gives MLS that media attention outside of the specific market in which it is. People want to tune in to watch Messi. So I think that has given the League another nuance, which I think is an interesting starting point to continue building towards the massification of the League.

We can talk hours about the business side of it all, but I love to see the impact it has on fandom. Messi's arrival brings with it the sort of fan that tunes in to the games every week, even if his team isn't playing and that's what ultimately helps a league become global.

And how do you feel that translates into organizing the upcoming Copa America and, ultimately, the World Cup in 2026? What does the U.S. have to offer when it comes to hosting the most global sporting event around?

I think the Copa America in 2016 was a great demonstration of what a fútbol tournament can be in the States. I mean, it had already been done in 1994 but that was a different time, with a different level of attention. The 2016 tournament was a demonstration that the United States continues to be a very suitable place for such events, because, first of all, it has huge numbers of Latinos scattered across the country, who are, at the end of the day, the ones that nurture the hunger for fútbol the most. And in second place, the obvious: infrastructure, transportation, promotion. The U.S. has all the capabilities you could ask for.

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