The greatest play-by-play voice in world soccer will be calling the World Cup for ESPN. It's a big opportunity for U.S. sports fans, just as it is for Martin Tyler, who might be the biggest English breakthrough star of the tournament in America. I recently spoke with Tyler about calling the month of soccer that lies ahead for the U.S. audience. Here is our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: I'm sure you had different options when it came to working this World Cup. Why did you choose ESPN and the United States?
Tyler: I work for Sky Sports, and they don't cover the World Cup. But they've been very kind to allow me to do this. ESPN had actually asked me to work on the European Championship with Andy Gray in 2008, but I was already committed to an Australian channel, SBS. I thought at the time I'd probably be coming with them to the World Cup, but for various reasons they had problems setting up what they wanted to set up. But I was available and [ESPN] came and asked me. It was very nice to be asked.
SI.com: You had to be excited when the U.S.-England game came up at the World Cup draw after you had signed on with ESPN, right?
Tyler: It was extraordinary. I was a guest on the ESPN draw program from London ready to react to all sorts of permutations. Even if they were in the same group, to be paired in their first games in that group, it's almost as if it were meant to be from my perspective.
I should say, though, I'm a broadcaster first and foremost, and I've always believed there are two teams on the pitch. I've never knowingly called England "we." I call the game as I see it. Of course, I've been to a lot of World Cups with England, and I would love to see England win, but that's for me as a person, not for me as a professional. So I hope I can reassure the audience that on June 12 I will be calling for ESPN. I hope people won't say, "That Englishman..." I will do it as best I can and as impartially as I always try to do.
SI.com: How many World Cups have you covered at this point?
Tyler: I did work on the 1974 World Cup, but I was more on the production side. As a commentator, from 1978 onwards. So this will be the ninth.
SI.com: Do you have a favorite and least favorite World Cup to this point?
Tyler: I think the first one is always special, and that for me was 1978 in Argentina. I was thrilled to be chosen to do it. Each time has been special. I've enjoyed them in different ways, really. I think it would be wrong to have a least favorite. I've certainly had one or two games that were least favorites, including the 1990 final, which I thought was very poor and disappointing at the end of a passionate tournament.
I certainly enjoyed flying around the States in 1994. I was primarily on the East Coast, where I was in the humidity, and it affected the football. A lot of the best football was played on the West Coast. I only spent three days on the West Coast, and two of those were around the final. I was sweating in Washington and Florida and New York, but I loved it all.
SI.com: What are you especially looking forward to in this World Cup?
Tyler: I'm looking forward to the challenges of trying to get across to a country where the gospel is spreading, but it's not totally spread, that this is a wonderful game, and that the World Cup itself is an extraordinary mixture of emotions and characters. It's like an unscripted soap opera where you might pick on someone in the opening game who catches your eye, and then you watch him all through the tournament. There might be somebody who has a special dance of joy when he scores a goal that captures the imagination. You have to realize that the game is played by people and not by robots. You have to try to get across in the broadcast the difference in personalities of these players, and that's part of the fun, of course, being in a position where you can pass along that knowledge because you represent the fan.
SI.com: I'd think it's a tendency broadcasting a World Cup for commentators to talk more about the players that they see in the leagues they normally cover, which for you I guess would be England and the Champions League. How much preparation does it take for you to get to know players from other leagues that you don't cover as regularly?
Tyler: It varies. With nations like North Korea a lot of work. But this isn't a World Cup that starts on June 11. It started pretty much in the summer of 2008. You follow the teams all the way through and you compile information. We broadcast the South American qualifiers in England, and we have access to TV channels that pretty much broadcast every qualifier. It's a valid point. If you know players personally like I know some of the players, the Premier League of course has been a melting pot for many different nationalities, so we have friends in many camps.
That will be useful. People like Steven Pienaar from Everton will be in the opening game for South Africa. But there will be players you know better than others. It's my job if somebody does something and he's not one of those players to know something to tell you. It's always a challenge. You wait for the 32 countries to get down to 23 players, really.
SI.com: Do you have any secrets for fighting fatigue during the World Cup?
Tyler: I've never had a problem, really. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I drink a lot of water, the same as the players. And obviously there's a lot of adrenalin as well. Four years ago I remember doing the two semifinals. The first semifinal went to extra time between Germany and Italy in Dortmund, which is a six-hour train journey from Munich, where the second semifinal was played. I had about two hours sleep before I had to get the train to Munich and be ready.
The World Cup is tough. You're going from different venues day to day. We're coming off the back of three consecutive World Cups in which trains have been a wonderful way to get around. This won't be possible because South Africa doesn't have the infrastructure for that, so it will be a different kind of travel. If you want to have a cozy World Cup, stay and watch it in front of the telly. But if you want to be amongst it and savor the particular style of the World Cup in Africa for the first time, then you have to graft. The World Cup is a wow, but you have to be ready to work every day. You're just full-on, and it's very special.