The World Cup kicks off Thursday in Brazil, and ESPN viewers can expect to hear the familiar voice of lead play-by-play commentator Ian Darke. This will be his sixth World Cup, and he tells Melissa Block how he keeps track of the more than 700 players participating at this year's tournament. He even shares a reoccurring nightmare he has about calling games.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
When the World Cup kicks off Thursday in Brazil, the voice we'll hear calling game on ESPN will be the familiar one of Ian Darke. Clear, precise, infusing the play with his own enthusiasm and smarts. This will be the British announcer's sixth men's World Cup. Here he is four years ago when the U.S. tied Slovenia in the 82nd minute.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)
IAN DARKE: ...Giving the United States, at least, hope. Out a door, to lay in down. Bradley has done it. U.S.A. - a level. The comeback kings strike again. Michael Bradley for the U.S.A. What a moment.
BLOCK: What a moment. Now, do the math. There are 32 teams in the World Cup, from Algeria to Iran to Uruguay. That means 736 players in all. And the announcer has to be able to identify them with split-second timing. Ian Darke says that's 95% of the job.
DARKE: People say, oh, well, it's no problem. They're all wearing numbers, and they've got names on their back. Well, you try identifying the numbers and names from 80 yards away and often in positions which feel like you're calling the match from the flight deck of a Boeing 747.
BLOCK: So we asked Ian Darke, what's the secret? How do you prepare for the World Cup? He says he spends a lot of time reviewing tape, memorizing the players' positions and watching them during warm-ups.
DARKE: I always have binoculars with me. And I look down and get in my head any players that I am not quite sure of. And you might have something very similar. And this all sounds very geekish, I'm sure...
BLOCK: But in the best way.
DARKE: ...To people who don't do it, who don't apply this peculiar trait of ours. But if you've got two players look similar, you try to find some distinguishing mark. And it might be that one of them is wearing yellow boots and the other one, orange. And it's amazing how many times something like that will help you, in a crowded penalty area, identify a goal-scorer.
BLOCK: And then will you make a note to yourself? Would you put, like, orange marker next to somebody's name, or do you just have to remember it?
DARKE: I kind of consign it to my head, really. I will write that down - orange boots or blue boots - about a certain player, or some distinguishing mark. So I'll be honest about it. There are times in a commentary - and I think any person who's called any sport will tell you the same - where you are on a little bit of a wing and a prayer with it.
BLOCK: And you're hoping you've got the right one.
DARKE: And you hope that you've got that right. And most of the time we are, thankfully.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the opening game on June 12 in Brazil. It's Brazil versus Croatia. And I've been looking at the rosters. Croatia, of course, has all those names that end with I-C. And I may be mangling the pronunciations here, but - Subasic, Pranjic, Rakitic, Perisic, Mocinic. And then, Brazil has these players with these wonderful single-word names, like Hulk and Jefferson.
BLOCK: What do you think about that match-up, in terms of the names that you have to responsible for?
DARKE: Yeah. Well, Brazil are very kind to us all, because they do shorten very long names to very short and, actually, quite catchy names, as you've just described. By the way, your pronunciations of the Croatia players were, more or less, spot on. (Laughing).
BLOCK: Oh, good. I'm gunning for your job.
DARKE: Of course, Pele - those names of Brazilian players, going back through history, roll off the tongue to anybody who follows the game. Rivelino, Vava, Didi, Gerson, Zico and so on - you know, wonderful players. And I think that's part of the charisma of Brazilian football, as well - that the names do have that way of reverberating through history.
BLOCK: And now, Hulk. (Laughing).
DARKE: And Hulk, of course. Everybody's going to write their headline, Incredible Hulk, when he scores. (Laughing).
BLOCK: Is there one language, Ian Darke, that gives you particular trouble, when you think about the teams in this year's World Cup?
DARKE: Well, I struggle, I must admit, with the South Korean team every time, because the names are all very similar. If you read through their squad, they've all got names like Sun Heung-ji(ph), Park Ji-Sun, Park Li-Heung(ph). And I just find that very difficult to get those names into my head.
BLOCK: When you think about your role, your character in these games, what do you see that character as being? What you want to convey?
DARKE: That's difficult question to answer. I don't think the game is about the commentator or the announcer or the broadcast team. You hope that what you do is adding to the drama that's unfolding on people's television screens at home. You hope that you're not being too intrusive. You hope that you are a welcome guest in their living room, because that's what you are. You don't want to be an annoying, boring know-all in the corner who never stops talking.
BLOCK: Do you find yourself dreaming about games? Do you have work nightmares of - just, like - what's the thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night?
DARKE: Yeah. My worst nightmare - and this is a recurring nightmare, so maybe I need to be psychoanalyzed about this - is that I am making my way from the TV truck to the commentary position. And it's getting a bit too near the kickoff. And I'm on the stairs, and I just can't find where the commentary position is. And, of course, it being a dream, I never do. Or I sort of burst in on the co-commentator. And there's already 12 minutes gone, and it's already two-two. Yeah. I've had that many times, that dream. So if there's a Joseph out there who can interpret it, that would be good.
BLOCK: Well, Ian Darke, have a great time in Brazil. We'll be listening. Thanks so much for talking to us.
DARKE: And my pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.
BLOCK: That's Ian Darke, ESPN's lead play-by-play commentator for the World Cup. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.