The poet laureate of soccer in the United States is not an American. ESPN's Ian Darke was born on the south coast of England in the naval port town of Portsmouth and since he landed on American shores fulltime for the 2010 World Cup, his soccer calls have thrilled the American public with the most famous being his description of Landon Donovan's injury-time game-winner against Algeria during that tournament.
After calling the 2012 Euro Championships and the U.S. national teams for the past couple of years, Darke was named the lead gamecaller for ESPN's coverage of the 2014 World Cup, which runs from June 12 through July 13. He'll call the opening game of the tournament (host Brazil against Croatia on June 12); the final on July 13; all U.S. national team games until they are eliminated, and England's games in the group stage. Darke is also assigned to Spain and Chile in the opening round. (His schedule for the knockout round and beyond will be determined once he arrives in country.) Here's a comprehensive preview of the tournament's television coverage.
Darke's last assignment Stateside is a U.S. friendly against Nigeria next Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. before flying to Brazil the following day. SI.com caught up with the broadcaster last week prior to his World Cup journey:
Brazil is not the easiest place to travel given its size. How have you prepared for this trip?
Darke: I have had five different injections (laughs). I had to shell out $210 dollars to have all these injections and I have a stock of malaria tablets I have to start taking two days before I go to Manaus the first time. I am hoping there are no side effects. There is also an outbreak of dengue fever in São Paulo where the opening game is so I have been asking chemists what kind of insect repellent you need against that. Since we have heard transportation is quite chaotic, we are all going to try to do it with hand baggage only. Half of my bags will be books and the other half will be light as possible. Some of the guys are doing games and then going straight to the airport to get a flight at 2 a.m. with a kickoff not far beyond lunch time the next day.
How do prepare to call a World Cup where you are assigned multiple teams at the start?
Darke: In a World Cup year you are paying pretty close attention to the international matches. You watch as many of the matches as you can on tape. Once you know who has qualified, you read as much as you can on the various teams but really you can only properly start doing it once you have the draw. I have said this before and it is quite boring: Ninety-five percent of the job is knowing the players and being able to identify them. And that involves as many tapes as you can get a hold of.
So there are teams you won't do a lot of prep on then?
Darke: Yes, for instance, I'm not doing Iran in the group stage so I have done next to nothing on them other than just reading brief notes and preview stuff. But here's the other example: I am doing the opening game of the tournament which is Brazil-Croatia. I covered Brazil during the Confederations Cup and they have only made a handful of changes from that roster, so I am pretty familiar with how they play.
What are you looking for with the better-known teams in the World Cup?
Darke: Something that can bring the players to life. For instance, I can tell you that [Uruguay's] Diego Forlán has X number of goals in Y number of games but I would suspect that the audience would be more interested in the story about when he was a boy he always knew he would be a top sportsman and when his sister became sick, he vowed to her when he was 12 that she would never have to worry about medical bills, because he would pay them all. That story I think brings that guy to life and that's not just applicable to soccer, but to anyone calling any game. I'm not saying you litter the commentary with a million back stories of players, but when that player becomes relevant, it's maybe something nice to drop in. I'm looking for that type of line about some of the players. It is not something you can do in one week or weeks prior to the World Cup. I have been building it up slowly over the past couple of months.
Soccer fans are the hardest of graders for name pronunciation. How do you go about it, especially for players who don't play in major soccer leagues?
Darke: The only really reliable way to find out how to pronounce the players name is to ask the player, but we are rarely afforded that luxury and particularly in the middle of the World Cup where security around the teams and access to players is suffocating. The simplest way generally is if I am in the press room before the game I will bounce the pronunciation off a journalist or commentator from that country. I have done the same for commentators from other countries with England players and U.S. players. A lot of the journalists will call him Matt Bes-ler and not Matt Bees-ler. You would not know that without talking to someone from the country concerned.
Can you overprepare as a World Cup broadcaster?
Yes. You can have such a mountain of stats that it could drive you crazy. You would never sleep at night. All you can try to do is find out as much as you can and have as many of the bases covered. But one thing I would advise any young commentators is, don't turn it into a stat attack and don't make it a mission to let the world know how much you know about every single player. In any sport, see what happens.
What happens if travel prevents ESPN announcers from getting to the game location?
Darke: We have a guy in Rio waiting to commentate off the TV if the commentators don't get there, which is possible. We are committed to giving people coverage of every game but there has to be a Plan B backup. So, we have someone sitting in the International Broadcast Center in Rio in the event there is a problem.
How many World Cup finals have you called?
Darke: Two. When I was working at Eurosport, I did the dreadful 1990 final. I also did the 1998 final for a global feed.
Where does the Donovan call rank for you amid all of your calls, regardless of sport?
Darke: In terms of a reaction to a piece of commentary, it would be number one. It's not about the commentator. It's about the moment, and the moment was so dramatic and you hope you do it justice. I did Ben Johnson winning the dirtiest race in history [Olympic final in Seoul] in 1988 as a young radio commentator. I have covered events that have been much, much bigger -- I covered Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson in Tokyo. I have covered much bigger stories, but in terms of response to a moment, I don't think I have ever had that amount of reaction to a call.
How difficult a task is this for the U.S. to get out of its group?
Darke: It's probably the toughest draw the USA has ever had in the World Cup, almost a cruel draw, bearing in mind they were ranked 13th in the world at the time it was made. They have a tougher draw than some of the teams that had to go through playoffs to make it. But, I think they will travel full of belief and confidence, and they will be one of the fittest teams there. If they can win the opening game, suddenly it looks different. I don't think they are favorites to beat Ghana but in a one-off, 90-minute game, it's a winnable game.
Who are you tipping to win it all?
Darke: I am not supporting any team, but if you ask me going in and it is totally unoriginal, you have to say Brazil are worthy favorites based on the way they reacted to the pressure in the Confederations Cup a year ago and that they have not lost a competitive home game since 1975.
When you are calling a game, how much food or drink do you consume?
Darke: Not much (laughs). Often the positions we are in -- not so much at World Cup but quite often in England -- you don't have any access to restrooms. You can't get there at halftime because there are huge crowds and queues everywhere. I try not to drink a load of stuff, because basically you are stuck there for three hours. Generally, I'll have some water and maybe a biscuit. I know some blokes who have eaten meat pies at halftime. I always try to have a decent meal three or four hours before so you don't run out of energy.
What did you make of the dating commercial you filmed that people enjoyed?
Darke: I don't take myself too seriously and the marketing people thought it would be a good idea. I'm surprised and delighted that people liked it. We were in this Italian restaurant they booked for the day. I was there from 7 a.m. to six at night and we had a proper director there with loads of extras. I gained a huge amount of respect for movie stars who have to do all those retakes.
Did you play soccer growing up?
Darke: Not at a professional level. I captained my school team (Challoner's Grammar School in Buckinghamshire, England) and I played midfield. I was a reasonable creative midfield player, but I was not nearly tough enough. I was pretty good at crossing the ball and scored goals, and I played for my country's team and things like that, but I was not nearly good enough to be a pro. I quickly realized that I was not going to be a sports star. I went to Harlow Technical College -- a journalist's college in a town called Harlow in Essex. We did specialist journalist courses and you got guaranteed a job on a newspaper. That would not happen now, but it did so happily for me.
What player or team all-time do you wish you had the opportunity to call?
Darke: I would love to have called 1970 Brazil. They were just a wonderful team. The samba football thing has become a cliché, but they gave reality to it.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. NBC said the Kings-Blackhawks Game 7 overtime game on Sunday night averaged 4.137 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-Stanley Cup Final game on record as well as the most-watched NHL game ever on NBCSN. The game surpassed Game 7 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Final between the Panthers and Penguins (4.049 million) that aired on ESPN. It also topped the third game of last year's Stanley Cup Finals between the Blackhawks and Bruins (4.001 million) as the most-watched NHL game ever on NBCSN. Sunday's game peaked at 5.5 million viewers from 10:30-10:45 p.m. ET.
1b. The top 10 television markets for Game 7 were: 1. Chicago; 2. Buffalo; 3. Los Angeles; 4. Minnesota-St. Paul; 5. Boston; 6. San Diego; 6. Pittsburgh; 6. Milwaukee; 9. New York. 10. Providence.
1c. ESPN's coverage Heat's six-game win over the Pacers averaged 7,234,000 viewers, the second most-watched Conference Finals ever on ESPN.
1d. The Spurs-Thunder series on TNT averaged 6.8 million total viewers, an increase of 35 percent over last year (4.9 million total viewers for Spurs-Grizzlies).
2. Adam Zucker will replace Tim Brando as the host of College Football today, which leads in and out of the network's SEC Game of the Week. Analysts Brian Jones and Spencer Tillman return for the show, which airs Saturdays from 3:00-3:30 PM ET during the college season.
2a. Kirk Bohls of the Austin-American Statesman reported that former Texas football coach Mack Brown was on the verge of formalizing a deal with ESPN to work as a college football analyst.
3. Fox Sports hired the former Giants lineman David Diehl to work as an NFL game analyst. He'll be assigned to regional broadcasts this year. Newsday interviewed Diehl about the gig here.
4. Medium, the online blogging platform founded by Twitter CEO Evan Williams, has started a new sports vertical called The Cauldron. The vertical will be edited by former ESPN and SI.com staffer Andy Glockner, with a mission statement promising smart stories written by smart people for smart readers. Glockner said readers should expect a combination of reported features, news-driven analysis, personal essays, advanced analytics pieces and other types of stories.
"We want our audience to feel time on The Cauldron was well spent -- and hopefully leaves them wanting more," Glockner said in an email. "We don't plan on being a 'sports and' publication. We're not trying for sports and pop culture, or sports and economics, or sports and pseudo-'sportz' stories...Ultimately, we want stories with depth and uniqueness, not #HotSportsTakes. We will encourage our writers to stretch their creative wings. Whether that means covering new sports, exploring new angles within their primary sport, or finding different stories to tell altogether, we expect our staff to consistently challenge itself and improve its collective skills."
Glockner said at launch the writing roster will feature varying degrees of professional experience.
"Some have worked for local and regional newspapers, others have written for widely read blog networks, and a number of them currently freelance for major national sports publications," he said. "If our contributors write for us and then go on to steady gigs at the Grantlands of the world, then we are probably doing something right. If we are well received and become successful enough to keep those same people, even better."
5. NBC will air 16 hours of programming around the 146th Belmont Stakes beginning this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with California Chrome: The Unlikely Champion, a 30-minute documentary narrated by Bob Costas. On Friday at 5 p.m. ET, NBCSN will air live race coverage of the True North and Belmont Gold Cup. Race coverage on Saturday begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, and continues at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBC. There is a post-race show scheduled at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
5a. MLB Network will televise the first 74 picks of the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft starting at 7: 00 p.m. ET on Thursday. The network's coverage will feature interviews with general managers, prospects and footage on every pick. Seven amateur players are scheduled to attend the draft in person at MLB Network's Studio 42 in Secaucus, New Jersey. There will also be a draft preview show airing at 6:00 p.m.
5b. NBCSN's Pro Football Talk is creating a series Prime Numbers to determine the most influential players in the history of the NFL to wear each jersey number (1-99). Coverage began Monday at 5:30 p.m. ET and will run through July 3 over 24 episodes.
5c. The top 10 sports events on Twitter between Sept. 1, 2013 and May 25, 2014.
5d. SB Nation had a long profile of Vin Scully.
5e. Keith Olbermann had an interesting take on the Redskins team name.
5f Nice work by Fox Sports 1's Andy Roddick with his foundation.
5g. TNT's Charles Barkley on who will win the 2014 NBA Finals: "It's been amazing what the Spurs have accomplished. I didn't think they could come back from last year's Finals from a mental and physical standpoint. I think Miami is going to win the championship again. No disrespect to the Spurs. They have the best point guard, coach and fans in the NBA, but I just think Miami is going to win."
5h. Pretty cool World Cup mobile-friendly site here called Tap In.