The call has been described as the “Do you believe in miracles?” for millennials.
Facing elimination from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the United States was locked in a scoreless draw with Algeria as the game entered injury time in the second half. Forty-five seconds later, after a Clint Dempsey shot was snuffed by the Algerian goalkeeper, Landon Donovan put home the rebound for one of the biggest goals in U.S. history.
This is how Ian Darke described it on ESPN:
“Can they do it here? Cross, and Dempsey is denied again — and Donovan has scored! Oh, can you believe this? Go, go, USA! Certainly through! Oh, it’s incredible! You could not write a script like this!”
Certainly, the magic was in the moment itself. But Darke’s giddy conveyance of it cemented a special place for the British commentator in the hearts of American soccer fans.
ESPN had entered the 2010 World Cup touting its lead announcer, Martin Tyler, as the star attraction. But the staid Tyler never quite seemed to connect with viewers on this side of the pond. Though ESPN announced in the midst of the 2010 tournament that Tyler would be back calling games for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it was Darke who signed a long-term deal with the network in September 2010. And this January, ESPN announced Tyler had bowed out of 2014 coverage and Darke would be the lead voice in Brazil.
Darke will call Thursday’s Brazil-Croatia opener and every U.S. match in the tournament, plus selected other games. He talked to The Washington Times after the U.S.-Turkey warmup match about the growth of soccer in this country, how he prepares for his broadcasts and why his style works so well here.
The Washington Times: Many don’t remember that you were part of ESPN’s team for the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. How big a change has it been for soccer in this country?
Ian Darke: “Huge. In those days you were still having to do things like, the producer was telling you to explain the offside law. Now my approach is, there’s a very knowledgable audience out there, they know what they’re looking at. I wouldn’t do the commentary any different than I would do it for an English audience.”
TWT: Speaking of that, what is it about your style that helps you connect with an American audience?
Darke: “That’s a good question. If I’m honest, I’ve never quite been able to work that out. I suppose I kind of maybe commentate a little more in the style of an American commentator. I tend to sort of be a little bit excitable and maybe accentuate the drama. But I’ve always believed the same thing in commentary: You’re a guest in somebody’s living room, and in a 90-minute [match], people can get fed up with you. They’re listening to you for 90 minutes. So don’t drone on, don’t get boring. I try not to be. Make your points quickly, and have gears. I think you should have lots of moods in it, and I try to, if I get a chance, lighten the mood a bit; heighten the drama when it’s there. It should ideally be a mix. But it’s not about the commentator — it’s about the game and the players. We’re not bigger than the game and would never, ever pretend to be.”
TWT: You have described what you do as a “90-minute ad-lib,” but there obviously is preparation involved. How do you typically prep for a match?
Darke: “I’ll have done background, or as much as you can do ahead of the time on each of the teams I’m going to cover. Then you just stay across any developments with that team — results, injuries. Read around the subject, watch tapes. A lot of the problem we have at the World Cup itself, because we’re traveling all the time, is getting to see the other games. If I’m going to do Portugal next, for instance, I need to have seen their first game, but I might be hanging around Manaus airport or something. So we have to somehow get a system where we can get the tapes across, because the more recent stuff’s the far more relevant. I quite like to dig out, instead of just ordinary ‘He scored eight goals in 28 games,’ which is a kind of OK little stat, but you try to get human-interest stories about the players. Something a little bit offbeat about them as well. You’ve got a few good lines like that on the U.S. players that you might use at an opportune moment when they became the story.
“A lot of the time you’re doing the prep and you’ve got bags of stuff, but if it’s a good game, you might only use 10 percent of that in a game. If it’s a duller game, like a goalless draw, then yeah, you might feel the need to kind of bounce off Taylor [Twellman] or whoever you’re commentating with more and kind of make the commentary a bit lighter. I always picture people sitting at home on their sofa with a beer and think, ‘I’d be bored if I was sitting at home watching this.’ You’d better come up with something to make it a bit spicier.”
TWT: So you do actively think about your audience as a game is unfolding?
Darke: “I think you need that. I think you need a kind of mental editing machine. You’ve always got to put yourself in the place of people you’re talking to, to some extent. I mean, I’d never do that script if I had scripted the ‘Go, go, USA!’ line. I’d never do that, and I’m now slightly embarrassed that I did when I hear it. All I can say about that in my defense is that, at the time, at that moment as it existed, it felt like the right thing for the people who were watching it.”
TWT: Still, it must have been immediately apparent how huge that moment was for U.S. soccer, right?
Darke: “You’ve got to feel that a little bit to do it, so yeah, I think I probably did feel that. You know how much is wound up in the World Cup for the American audience in terms of the growing number of fans here. They so want the country to do well. And let’s be honest, the U.S. does have a bit of a chip on its shoulder about its place in world soccer. ‘Nobody respects us.’ I’m amazed at how many times I’ve been asked that question: ‘What do they think of us?’ They’re worried about it. But you’ve made the World Cup every time [since 1990], you drew with England, you topped the group [in 2010].
“So I think all wound up in that [Donovan goal] was what a moment of relief it was that they weren’t out of the World Cup. I think it was a little bit of a breakthrough moment, too, in terms of, OK, here’s this fairly dull game and then there’s this huge moment that kind of means everything.
“That’s why you watch it, isn’t it? You hope something unexpected like that comes along.”