Landon Donovan’s stoppage time goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup was fateful in many, many ways. One of the most tangible consequences? It kickstarted the Ian Darke phenomenon.
In 2010, Darke was one of UK’s lead soccer and boxing announcers. After ESPN’s commentary debacle in the 2006 World Cup, featuring Dave O’Brien – the equivalent of Gus Johnson minus the enthusiasm – as the companies’ lead announcer, ESPN decided to bring in British announcers to commentate on the World Cup in South Africa.
Martin Tyler was the star. Heralded as a soccer messiah, a grizzled, timeless voice of British soccer and the World Cup, Tyler was promoted, given commercials to promote the tournament, and made lead announcer.
Very few people in American’s mainstream had ever heard of Ian Darke. That would change very quickly. Tyler, who deserved the plaudits, was assigned to call the USA’s first game against England, but after that, the Americans played two relatively low-profile games against Slovenia and Algeria.
You know what happened next. Darke’s commentary on two of the most exciting and intense games captivated America. The culmination was Donovan’s goal against Algeria, which was met with an iconic call from Darke, so full of energy, wonder and joy, it was almost impossible to believe Darke, who hails from Portsmouth, wasn’t an American.
As the play, and accompanying call went viral, Darke’s star grew in the United States. By the time he branded Giovanni Van Bronkhorst’s wonder-goal for the Netherlands against Uruguay in the semi-finals an “absolute firecracker,” Darke’s rise as a cult figure in America was quickly growing too.
Darke was, almost on accident, the voice of US Soccer. With ESPN needing a permanent man to head up its newly-acquired Premier League coverage, and Darke stuck behind Tyler at Sky, the Englishman was an obvious choice. The country was in love.
Darke’s style of commentary is perfectly suited to America. While Martin Tyler and many commentators like him are cerebral, calm, and often detached, Darke is excitable, loud, and involved in the game. That isn’t to say Darke doesn’t have the vocabulary and panache of all the great British soccer announcers – he does – but he also exhilarates the match he is calling.
Americans like passionate announcers. Gus Johnson, for example. It was Darke’s ability to combine that enthusiasm with his ability to weave a narrative like he was writing poetry that set him apart from all his counterparts in the country. Marv Albert’s signature call is “Yes!”, Darke described Spain’s passing in the final of Euro 2012 as the team “caressing the ball across the pitch”.
In their three years as the voice of the Premier League in America, Darke, and commentary partner Steve McManaman have become beloved, cultish figures.
So many American soccer fans woke up early on Saturday mornings with Darke and Macca, not because they were calling the biggest game of the weekend, but because that was tradition.
Darke must be slightly bewildered by the love and adoration he receives in the United States – after all, he never was so cherished in his homeland. But Darke’s career path in the US has been closely accompanied by the growth of the Premier League in the States.
For many people, especially those who don’t have FOX Soccer, Darke was the voice, the only voice of the Premier League. Without the success of the EPL on ESPN, it’s possible that NBC’s record-breaking deal to show the Premier League starting in August never would have happened.
Darke and Macca were the stars of those ESPN broadcasts. Many people would watch just to hear them. That’s the Gus Johnson Effect that FOX has been lusting after. A broadcaster so compelling and appealing that people would tune in just to hear him.
NBC’s Premier League coverage promises to be groundbreaking and outstanding, but there is nowhere to go down but down on the match commentary. Arlo White is qualified, but he’s no Darke. ESPN’s coverage of the world’s most popular league will be missed.
Of course, everyone’s favorite Brit will still be heard on American airwaves from time to time. He’ll still be covering the USA national team – who he has seemingly given mind-boggling luck to since the 2010 World Cup – the Confederations Cup this summer, and the World Cup in 2014. Tyler will also be back for that tournament. It will be interesting to see who calls the final.
Soccer in America, most of all the Premier League, is growing very quickly. Maybe Donovan’s goal was fated in more ways than one. Because when we think about the fathers of the Premier League in America, Darke springs to mind. He narrated beautifully, and put himself on the Rushmore of Soccer in America.