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Ian Darke and the USA: A love story

3 October 2012

By Steven Maloney

“Howard gratefully claims it… distribution brilliant. Landon Donovan… There are things on here for the USA! 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.” – Ian Darke, Pretoria, June 23, 2010

It would not be surprising to hear a story about a last-second World Cup goal with the survival of the nation on the line changing the course of a career. But on June 23, 2010 in Pretoria, the career that changed was not the goal scorer’s (Landon Donovan), but was instead the career of one Ian Darke, the veteran EPL match commentator moonlighting on American television.

For the uninitiated in American sporting culture, there are two great sports calls in American history that stand out above the most. Number one is probably Al Michaels’ call of the USA’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” Number two is the famous call by Russ Hodges of Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” Home Run in 1951: “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!”

If the two above calls are the Pele and Diego Maradona of American sports calls, Ian Darke’s call of the 2010 USA-Algeria match is the Lionel Messi. Darke’s is the greatest in recent memory, and time will decide whether or not it actually joins that absolute upper echelon. Either way, its place on that next tier of great calls is beyond secure. Darke’s call made on the precipice of the explosion of the sport’s popularity in the United States, enhanced by the fact the play itself was set up by the country’s three most elite players (Howard, Dempsey and Donovan), and cemented in history by shots of Tim Howard pointing to the heavens and an American fan in tears of joy in the stands.

By tournament’s end, it seemed clear to all of us listening carefully in the United States that both our team and country had grown on Ian Darke. Make no mistake about it: we love him for this reason.

In the buildup to World Cup 2010 – besides serving as the letter “Y” in the now infamous “EASY: England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks” headline from The Sun – the main news story for Americans were that we were getting a real English commentator to do some of our World Cup matches. The previous job done by ESPN in 2006 was so poor that they felt compelled to run commercials before the tournament advertising that this time it would be different. ESPN’s change of attitude commercial featured U2’s “Beautiful Day” as fanfare to announce the big catch… Martin Tyler.

While Americans went to the party with Martin Tyler, they surely came home with Ian Darke. Even before the famous call in the USA-Algeria match, people were talking. In my world, it started with people saying, “Martin Tyler’s great, but you know who else is really good? Ian Darke.” Then it slowly progressed from respect into something more. And it seemed to be cutting both ways. Perhaps it was the fact that Darke’s early matches were spent paired with the dour Efan Ekoku (or at least I assume it was Efan Ekoku, it may have just been a tape machine that played him saying, “that’s poor, for me” over and over again) but when the time came that Darke was paired with former USA International John Harkes, Darke seemed to put extra emphasis on delighted in “I’m delighted to be bringing this match to you with John Harkes.” While Darke opting not to treat working with Americans with usual tone of voice (thinly veiled contempt) confused us, we noticed and appreciated it. By the time Darke was exclaiming, “Go! Go! USA!” we had, as a nation, forgotten all about Martin Tyler. A love affair had begun. 

The key to Ian Darke’s meteoric rise in the eyes of the American soccer fan has everything to do with the sense we had that he had fallen in love with us too. The American fan respects the great football cultures of the world, and is desperate for reciprocity. The American fan also saw World Cup 2010 as not just about bringing more American fans to the beautiful game, but it also bringing the global football community in to see the evolution of the American fan. Far from being the worst stereotypes about Americans, we were cosmopolitan. We knew the language and culture of the game, we had worked at learning it for years, and we wanted some acknowledgment that as supporters we were legitimate members in the community of nations. The auditory transformation of Ian Darke over the course of his World Cup match commentary seemed to personify the realisation of our hopes as fans. 

And we got to keep him!

Saturday mornings on ESPN mean, for America’s soccer fans, the joy of Ian Darke and Macca. USA internationals mean Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman. Women’s World Cup matches mean Ian Darke and Julie Foudy. Ian Darke, once the other guy brought in to cover World cup 2010, is now the pulse at the centre of ESPN’s football coverage. Someone was going to be at the intersection of American football going big-time and global football culture, it happened in the 91st minute in Pretoria. The American football fan is here to stay, and we showed our statement of intent by turning our loan deal for Ian Darke into a permanent transfer. May it go down in history as one of the best-post World Cup moves in history.

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