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 By Ian Darke
Jun 10, 2014

How I prepare for a World Cup

The World Cup is not only a daunting yet exciting proposition for players, but for TV and radio commentators, as well.

Like the referees, the men and women calling the matches will be noticed only if they make horrendous mistakes or irritate you.

I recall one veteran broadcaster telling me, "Always remember: 60 percent of the audience probably thinks you are an idiot. Try to make sure that by the end of the show, the other 40 percent doesn't agree with them."

Mistakes are easy to make, so commentators in Brazil should remember that wise adage: "If you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail."

For all the fancy phrases and memorable goal calls, it is a dull fact that 95 percent of the commentators' job is identifying players.

Ordinary fans might say, "That's easy. They have numbers and names on their backs."

That's true, but try seeing those names and numbers from a position so high in the stands that it feels like you're working from the flight deck of a Boeing 747. Or you get a team like Argentina, who wear black numbers on top of their famous blue and white stripes -- making those numbers virtually invisible for the man with the microphone sitting 80 yards away.

The trick is to watch as many tapes of the teams as possible beforehand to familiarise yourself with these men who have strange-sounding names and hail from faraway places.

Also, I always carry a pair of binoculars to look at players during warm-ups to find distinguishing features. Hair colour, height and running style are all good clues. A team might have two identical-looking strikers, but then you'll notice one is wearing orange boots and the other blue. To a commentator, little things like that can mean a lot in calling the right goal scorer in a crowded penalty area.

Ian Darke will call Thursday's World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia.

Famously, Romania's players all dyed their hair blond at the 1998 World Cup, making them an absolute nightmare for those of us charged with telling our audience who they all were. They left the tournament unlamented by the commentary fraternity after a 1-0 loss to Croatia in Bordeaux, where I observed: "Proof here that blonds don't always have more fun."

Then there is the business of pronouncing the players' names correctly. Not easy.

For instance, how many non-American TV broadcasters will know that U.S. defender Matt Besler is pronounced "Beez-ler," not "Bess-ler"?

The quickest solution is to ask the players themselves to pronounce their names (though a few have looked at me as if I had just arrived from Mars) or run the names by journalists from their country. I have even called embassies to ask them to help me out.

It is amazing how many people still call Jose Mourinho "ho-say," as if he were Spanish, not Portuguese. There is no excuse for that one after all this time.

Beyond that, there is the laborious business of building a good portfolio on every team you are due to cover. With the final 23-man squads not announced until June 2, only so much of the work can be done ahead of time.

For instance, Diego Maradona, the coach of Argentina in 2010, called up little-known Ariel Garce to the World Cup squad. The 30-year-old defender -- with three caps to his name at the time -- thought the coach's phone call was a practical joke (and then stayed on the bench the whole tournament).

For every team, a commentator needs to know how they qualified, who scored the goals, who the key players were, what tactics they used, the style of the coach, and what storylines developed along the way.

For every team, you also need each player's age, number of caps, goals, red cards and relevant sequences. For instance: "Has not scored in his last 23 internationals," "Winning his 100th cap" or "Team has never lost when he scored."

Ideally, the commentary should never be a "stat attack." Any facts and figures used should have a wow factor, with people at home saying to themselves, "How about that?"

But (this is a personal feeling) you are more likely to catch the viewers' imagination with personal, heartwarming stories about the players than routine, dull stats.

Uruguay's Diego Forlan, the top player of the last World Cup, vowed at 12 years old that he would be a sports star and would be able to pay the expensive medical bills of his sick sister. He has.

Cristiano Ronaldo has reportedly had a room in his house converted to replicate the steamy conditions in the Amazon city of Manaus, where his Portugal team play the United States.

Telling the stories behind the stars draws the interest of viewers.

Steven Gerrard, the England captain, lost a 10-year-old cousin in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster that claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans.

To most fans, those backstories help bring the players to life as personalities rather than just blokes who are rather good at kicking a ball around. As ESPN's vastly experienced production guru, Geoff Mason, told us before the last World Cup, "Imagine a family sitting at home watching a game between two teams they don't care about. Try to give them something to make them root for one guy or one team. Get them interested."

Without turning the game into an endless succession of players' life stories, it is good advice.

It's always worth checking the referee, as well. If you can tell your viewers that the man in the middle is a Saudi oil millionaire or a part-time lion tamer, you are guaranteed to command attention.

All this commentary information can be gained through a lot of reading, thumbing through reference books and, for ESPN's crew, the help of a superb research team led by Paul Carr and Mark Young, who send us weekly World Cup updates beginning months before the tournament.

Along the way, you hope to develop a few international contacts who will be able to give you the inside track on a team or player, and possibly even the likely starting 11.

On a match day, I put all my information onto one cardboard sheet (so it doesn't blow away) and tuck it into a waterproof folder (in case of rain). Younger commentators do it all with some fancy moves on their tablets, but I am old-fashioned enough to wonder what happens if the battery runs out.

Still, you can overprepare and be too much of a know-it-all. The best advice is to let the flow of the game dictate the feel and narrative of the commentary. Stay close to the drama.

You can always tell a great match because you use very few of those research notes. A thrilling 3-3 draw has enough in the game to need little by way of trimmings from the commentator.

But a 0-0 bore with few chances requires the men at the microphone to be entertaining and to inject a little colour and wit, along with talking points to be discussed with the ex-player sitting alongside them in the booth. (For U.S. games this summer, it will be Taylor Twellman; for England games, Steve McManaman.)

Above all, we try to be informed, pleasant guests in the living rooms of our audience -- not tedious drones in the corner who never know when to shut up.

None of those given the rare privilege of calling the World Cup in Brazil should forget that, while it is a demanding job with tiring travel, it beats real work.