When Taylor Twellman heard how many ties Bob Ley was bringing to Brazil, he laughed.
"Bob says 12 ties?" Twellman asked me while packing for Brazil to cover the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
"I’ve got everything from six bottles of bug spray, malaria pills, five suits, probably 25 shirts, 25 ties. I have absolutely no idea what to do."
Beginning with a trip to Jacksonville to call the final tune-up for the U.S. men's national team with fellow broadcaster and world traveler Ian Darke, Twellman will be on the road for 73 consecutive days calling soccer for ESPN.
The biggest challenge in packing for a trip that long isn't necessarily the volume as much as the variety.
"I will travel with little to almost nothing when I go to do a game and go back [to the ESPN studio in Rio de Janiero]. Calling games you aren’t on camera much, you just need a sport coat and a tie. And obviously in Manaus I’ll probably have a ski mask and bees net just so I don’t get bit by any of the mosquitoes."
Twellman will be stationed at the home base of ESPN when not calling matches, working alongside Ley, Alexi Lalas and a host of pundits, reporters and former players ESPN is employing in an attempt to make this World Cup—its last before handing FIFA coverage off to Fox—a memorable one.
It's Darke who will do the most traveling of anyone, working with both Twellman for the United States games and Steve McManaman for many of the other marquee matches in Brazil.
I spoke with Ley the day before he left for Brazil, and while his dozen ties and custom shirts had been long since packed—he said the key is to keep everything in the plastic, and he had previously scouted the ironing-board situation at their hotel in Rio—he painted a wonderful picture of when Darke landed in the United States from London, on his way to Brazil, likening it to a scene from the 1930s.
"At 9:30 at night there’s this scene of me and Kasey (Keller) and Ian wheeling Ian’s luggage through Times Square, slaloming through European and South American tourists. We looked like three refugees from some undefined conflict in the war."
Ley's voice in telling that tale could not have sounded more jovial. He, like many ESPN personalities, is very excited for the World Cup to finally get underway.
The ESPN Team
In total, ESPN will have 12 announcers calling matches all around Brazil, including the likes of Jon Champion, Stewart Robson, Fernando Palomo, Alejandro Moreno, Adrian Healey, Kasey Keller, Derek Rae, Efan Ekoku, Daniel Mann and current Everton manager Roberto Martinez.
ESPN Radio also has eight additional radio-only voices calling matches in Brazil, and many of the aforementioned television analysts will share time with the likes of Ley, Mike Tirico, Lynsey Hipgrave, Lalas, Michael Ballack, Gilberto Silva, Santiago Solari and Ruud van Nistelrooy in the studio as well.
All told, ESPN will have more than two dozen on-air personalities in Brazil to shuffle in and out over the next month.
Gosh, that's a lot of ties.
Spiking the Futbol
Those at ESPN may not want to talk about it much, but it has to be a strange feeling knowing that Brazil is the last World Cup before Fox takes over, beginning with the Women's World Cup next year.
ESPN will still have a ton of soccer coverage in the future, but the World Cup is the big draw for both fans and television talent. This could be the last time many of the familiar faces at ESPN work together on an event this grand.
While Twellman is comparatively new to working the World Cup, Ley has had a similar World Cup experience several times before. He stressed to me the importance of putting on a good show for the viewers, not worrying about setting a bar that Fox has to reach in four years.
"We want to pass the torch with grace and be gentlemen about this. We’ve invited Fox in to show them what we are doing and hope they can do what they want to do in Russia.
"When it is all said and done, we’re not going to spike the ball in the end zone because we’ve been there before. I hope that we can get it into the end zone, and I hope that people say it was at least equal to South Africa."
If there is one goal for ESPN in 2014, it's to be as good or better than the coverage in 2010. I wrote at the time that the Worldwide Leader's coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup was the finest extended single-event coverage in televised sports history.
This World Cup has a lot to live up to, and the people at ESPN know it.
"The reason South Africa 2010 was as successful as it was," Ley told me before heading to Brazil, "is because we were all so busy doing what we wanted to do, which was calling a Cup the way we always wanted to call it—not explaining offsides, not talking down to the cognoscenti, not reaching out to lift up new fans.
"We were enthused that our audience enjoyed it, but at the time, all we did was our job."
The shift in philosophy was noticeable from 2006 to 2010. When I asked Ley what gimmicks or gadgets ESPN has in store, he took a more direct approach to the network's coverage plans.
"Get to Brazil. Do the Games. Do the Cup. Report the news. And at the end of it, if people say we did a good job, fine.
"We are going to have all the technical advances that one can muster in four years. All I know is we’re going to try and have the same type of intelligent, enlightened coverage we think we tried to give you in 2010.
ESPN President John Skipper echoes that edict, telling reporters that, "in '06, our sense was that we were going to present this to an American audience with Americans. We decided in '10 just to do the best job we could, hire the most experienced talent we could."
That plan paid off, with the coverage being received better than Skipper had anticipated. In some ways, that explains the logic in putting together this year's team. It certainly explains what attracted Twellman to the prospect of calling games for ESPN.
"I personally believe that the success of ESPN tied to the World Cup was when they treated the World Cup for what it is," he told me while still packing for Brazil. "Authentic. Genuine. They stopped dumbing it down, and that’s all the credit in the world to my bosses.
"I remember watching the 2006 World Cup compared to the 2010 was light-years," he continued. "In 2010 ESPN said, ‘This is what it is and we have no reason to apologize for liking this sport,’ and that’s why I think it came out so much better."
The 2010 Comparison
ESPN will spend hours dedicated to studio coverage of the World Cup, but the reason we watch—the reason everyone in the world watches—is for the games. I asked Twellman about his plan to cover the United States in the group stage, and whether he is aware just how many people are going to be watching and listening this month.
"I’m not changing a single thing when I call a game. Of course you’re aware of the audience, it’s the World Cup, but I’m not changing a thing. That’s part of the reason why ESPN hired me."
While it may be difficult for some in Twellman's position to be critical of the U.S. team, having played against (and with) many of the players during his career, Twellman seems unfazed, telling me, "I was the exact same way when I played. The way I critique stuff is always just been how I have been. There is nothing personal. As I see it, I say it and it’s over with."
Of course, Twellman has the benefit of working with one of the best play-by-play men in the entire world. In 2010, Darke became the star of ESPN's coverage, thanks in part to the unforgettable call he made on Landon Donovan's group-stage strike against Algeria.
Since that moment, Darke has become a bit of a media icon in America for soccer fans, something that would have come as a huge surprise heading into South Africa.
Four years later, Twellman is quick to avoid speculating who will be the surprise star coming out of Brazil, saying that it totally depends on the circumstances in each game.
"For the Algeria goal, Ian was in the right spot at the right time just like Landon Donovan was. So it’s hard to determine who is going to be that Ian Darke of 2010, because what if you get a World Cup like 1990 when every game goes to PKs and everything is boring?"
Could Brazil be…boring? Thankfully for ESPN's coverage, even if the matches are dull, nothing around the action on the field will be.
Twellman seems most excited about plans to cover the World Cup off the field, telling me that if ESPN is remembered for anything in Brazil, it will be how prepared it was to cover the events around the games.
"Because of the likes of Mike Tirico, Bob Ley, with the experience of [SVP and executive producer] Jed Drake, [coordinating producer] Amy Rosenfeld, I just feel like the way everything is covered on and off the field with this World Cup—it’s not a secret but Brazil is not even ready—I think there’s going to be something that has to be covered and covered the right way, and I feel like that’s what people are going to remember."
I asked Ley how they plan to cover the news around the World Cup using a sort of down-home, American analogy. If you tune in to a TV show about cooking barbecue, the hosts are talking about how to cook barbecue, not the social ramifications of the farming industry or corruption in the meat-packing business.
For ESPN, the meat of the World Cup is the play on the field, but that doesn't mean it will ignore how it was procured, especially if a story impacts the event directly.
"We are absolutely prepared to cover whatever can happen," Ley told me. "If nothing merits deploying all of those forces, if you will, then fine. But we’re prepared to do it. It’s part of the cultural exploration of the event. And what could really be interesting is if Brazil don’t make the final. If that happens…what happens then?
"Listen, we’re there to cover the football," Ley continued. "There is no doubt about that. But we are also there to show you what’s happening in the country, and if we are going to sit there and tell you this is the soul, the temple of soccer, where the love of the sport is like no other, and there is evidence that the love is waning…well, that’s part of the story, too."
The Brazil Experience
Twellman ended our conversation—still packing, by the way—by telling me he cannot wait to tweet about his trip to Manaus, spending 48 hours in the Amazon with Darke. "Mr. Belvedere and myself in Manaus," he joked, "having a good old time and calling a game. I think there are going to be stories that come out behind the scenes that will make this a good World Cup."
Ley took a more large-scale approach when talking about his World Cup experience. While he did warn what could happen if Brazil get knocked out early, Ley leans more toward prognosticating success for the Selecao, suggesting unrivaled celebration if the host nation wins.
"We could have a front seat at one of the great spectacles ever seen. Period.
"Given what modern media is, social media, the immediacy of it all. We may have the front seat on the greatest spectacle of sport ever. I’m not just talking about the games, I’m talking about if Brazil win this thing? Wow, it will be neat. I just hope we can get out."
Six times in the previous 19 World Cup finals, the host nation has won the tournament. Despite hoisting the trophy five times, Brazil are not one of those five, losing in the 1950 final to Uruguay in their only time as hosts.
If Brazil can win the World Cup in 2014, the spectacle would be amazing, and ESPN is fantastically well-positioned to capture it. Ley isn't concerned about how ESPN will accomplish such a task. He's confident this World Cup run will end with a bang.
Ley is actually more concerned for the airports, as he has a flight out of Rio the day after the final. If there's one place on the planet to get stuck, however, it would be Rio the day after Brazil wins the World Cup.
He probably should have packed a few more ties, just in case.
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