I punched a few numbers into Skype and clicked the call icon. The dial tone sounded unusual, but I knew that somewhere in London, the right phone was ringing.
Confirmation came a few seconds later. The Scottish brogue on the other end of the line was immediately familiar, and clear as a bell.
I first traded e-mails with Derek Rae over a decade ago, back when I was just getting started in soccer journalism. He was one of the signature soccer voices at ESPN, calling games around the world on the network's international channel. If you were ever on a Caribbean cruise or in the Pacific Rim or Africa in the 2000s, you might have heard his voice on Brazilian, Dutch or Spanish league broadcasts.
Rae also has a long history of covering American soccer. He was the local TV voice of the New England Revolution in Major League Soccer's early years, and did a few national games for ESPN too. He was also part of ESPN's 1998 World Cup team.
But he was cast aside in 2002 and 2006, because some ESPN executives insisted on having American accents call American soccer - even if those broadcasters knew nothing about the sport. The resulting furore (which extended well beyond Rae, it should be noted) still has not been forgotten.
At least Rae retained his role as ESPN’s lead play-by-play voice for UEFA Champions League broadcasts from 2003 to 2009. His exposure to American audiences grew further in 2008, when he called European Championship games on ESPN. He would go on to be part of ESPN’s 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship broadcast teams.
The Aberdeen native moved back across the Atlantic in 2009 to work with ESPN’s newly-launched United Kingdom channel. ESPN U.K. had won a package of domestic Premier League rights, and Rae became part of their on-air crew. You may recall seeing some sharing of production elements and other talent - including current NBC host Rebecca Lowe - on ESPN’s EPL broadcasts at that time.
ESPN lost its U.K. rights deal at the end of the 2013 season, coincidentally the same point when the network lost its U.S. rights deal. The network faced serious financial issues a result. Fortunately, new rights-holder BT Sport - a channel run by the well-established telecom company - took over ESPN’s properties and talent. So Rae didn’t have to wait too long to get back on solid footing.
Now Rae is set to return to American televisions. ESPN announced Thursday that he’ll join Ian Darke, Adrian Healey, Jon Champion, Daniel Mann and Fernando Palomo and as the network’s play-by-play voices for this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. The Associated Press report on the news is here. ESPN's official release, including all six announcers' bios, is here.
I've interviewed Healey and Darke in the past. Now it's time to hear from Rae. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaeComm. I know a fair number of you already do. He’s always engaging on social media, and he still retains a fondness for his followers on this side of the Atlantic.
Many American soccer fans are familiar with your work, but for those who are not, how did you first come to the United States? And how did you end up working for ESPN and the New England Revolution?
Well, the U.S.A. end of it was quite interesting, because it was slightly by chance. I had worked with the BBC in Scotland for five years [starting in 1986], and was their main commentator and radio presenter. At that point, you’re young and you kind of get impatient rather quickly. I really just felt that I quite liked the idea of trying something different.
I had made a few contacts at the  World Cup organizing committee, people I had met on my travels. So I made the move to the States. To be honest, to begin with, [it was] really just as a freelance journalist observing, to give it a few months and see what I’d think. I was doing a few things from Boston, where I had decided to base myself.
Well, lo and behold, shortly after that, the team that set up the World Cup venue in Boston were looking for a press officer. I seemed to fit the bill in terms of my experience - I didn’t have much experience in operations of a big [international] sporting event, but neither did anyone else at that time in the States, and certainly not for a World Cup.
I think my linguistic ability appealed to them, [and] the fact that I had worked in football and had covered European football for a few years, and had a knowledge that possibly no one else really would have had at that time - certainly not on the same basis. So I landed the job of press officer a year and a bit before the World Cup started.
It was a fascinating insight into how the media works in the States, but maybe more importantly, how the sport of soccer worked in the States at that time. And I will say that it was 20-plus years ago, and the culture was very different back then. You were in a position of explaining to people what this was. That was one of the jobs, dealing with local Boston media at that time, trying to ram home that this is the biggest sporting event in the world and it’s about to pop up in your back garden.
That was a wonderful experience. It was really on the back of it that I made some contacts at ESPN. They had gotten wind of the fact that I had worked at the BBC, and after the World Cup that’s where I landed.
The next step was having been at ESPN International for a couple of years, then the Revolution started [in 1996]. I knew a few people there through the World Cup and they were looking for a TV commentator. I seemed to tick all the boxes.
Then you moved back to the United Kingdom in 2009. How did that happen and what has life been like since then?
In 2009, I was actually on holiday in Scotland, and the season had just ended. Setanta Sports had just lost their [rights] contracts and were about to go into liquidation. I got a phone call alerting me to the fact that ESPN were monitoring developments, with a view to possibly setting up shop in the U.K. This intrigued me greatly.
I had done the Champions League for many years [and] we had just lost the Champions League at ESPN [to Fox], which was the main thing that I did, and from the point of view of viewers in the States, maybe the main thing I’m known for. So I was at a bit of a crossroads, to be honest. Yes, there still would have been work for me with ESPN International, but the Champions League was the crown jewel. It was something I really enjoyed and really put my heart and soul into.
It was put to me that if I had an interest in going back, then maybe this would work for all sides. So it did happen very quickly that summer. All of a sudden ESPN had to put an operations plan in place to start a brand-new channel in the U.K. A big part of that was Scottish football, which obviously was of interest to me. It was something I had never really lost my interest in and passion for.
So I spent a year, the whole 2009-10 season, flying back and forth. I was still attending to duties in Connecticut but I have to say - and I’m sure my colleagues would tell you the same thing - that I was a bit bleary-eyed that season. I would leave on a Thursday night, get ready for the game on a Saturday morning, and then fly straight back and do another job from Sunday to Thursday.
I did that for a whole season, and I think we realized - both ESPN U.K. and I - that we enjoyed what we were doing, but it made a bit more sense for the base to be back in the U.K. It’s been that way since the summer of 2010.
But you never know what’s quite around the corner, and last year ESPN decided they were pulling out of the U.K. market after the Premier League rights had been lost. So again there was a period of uncertainty, but thankfully BT Sport showed an interest in me as a commentator, and that’s where I do most of my work now.
There is still an ESPN channel in the U.K., but it is run by BT Sport. [They] essentially bought up the rights and a few other things, [including] the right to call one of their channels ESPN. So there is an ESPN channel, but it completely owned by BT Sport. It has no affiliation [beyond the name] with Connecticut.
I do freelance work as well for [British commercial broadcaster] ITV and STV in Scotland, and some of the world feeds that go internationally.
Your wife, Beth, is from Beverly, Massachusetts, and the two of you met while you were living in the United States. How has she adapted to life abroad?
She’s with me here in London. We keep our ties to Massachusetts and she goes back more than I do. We’ve been back the last few summers to do some unwinding, and that’s certainly the plan after the World Cup. Massachusetts is always going to be part of my life, and the U.S. as a whole, no question.
Alright, now let’s talk about the real reason for this interview: this summer's World Cup. What are you most looking forward to about being in Brazil?
I’m most looking forward to working in a country that I think symbolizes everybody’s notion of football passion. I think that if you were to ask somebody about the ultimate country - whether it’s playing, watching, TV coverage, everything - I think Brazil does it its own way more than anyone else.
And I think those of us who have followed the World Cup - in my case it’s going all the way back to 1974 [in West Germany], that’s the first one I can remember - Brazil have always been part of the story, and maybe the biggest part of the story. There’s something mystical, something magical about Brazilian football.
It sort of takes me back a little bit to my ESPN days, because that was the first league I covered. In those days, they didn’t have rights to very much - this was even before the Champions League. It was Dutch football, and the league I covered was Brazilian football. I would sit in a booth in Bristol, Conn., and transport myself to the Maracanã.* Well, now I’m going to get to commentate from the Maracanã. So it’s very special to me, this.
I think every World Cup has its own dynamic, its own challenge, its own feel. South Africa had its own distinct features. But I think Brazil is going to be unlike anything else that we’ve ever covered. I think there will be challenges with the transport and infrastructure, but that’s sort of the fun of it. We all embrace that. We don’t go there to be prima donnas or to be given luxury treatment. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about throwing yourselves into it, working as a team, and getting your own World Cup experience out of the thing.
* - For those who don’t know, the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio De Janeiro is the signature soccer stadium in Brazil, and arguably all of South America. It will host the World Cup title game, just as it did in 1950. Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca is the only other venue in the world that has hosted two finals.
I was going to ask about the infrastructure stuff next. There has been a lot of reporting and commentary about infrastructure issues in Brazil. The stadiums aren’t ready, we don’t know if the air transportation capacity is going to be there, the hotels are overpriced and so on.
That happens more and more with international events in countries where infrastructure isn’t up to outsiders’ standards. We saw it with the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as there were a lot of complaints from media about hotel accommodations and things not working, for example.
But much of the conversation was dismissed as just insiders complaining to other insiders. How much should the public care about these sorts of issues?
Well, being honest, as commentators - yes, it’s maybe a small part of the story, but I think your’re right with the gist of your question there. People at home, obviously want to watch the World Cup. That’s what they’re interested in. They aren’t necessarily interested in how long it took a commentator to get from Recife to Porto Alegre.
It may be a nice story in the sense that it’s further than people think - I don’t think people realize the vastness of Brazil. To get from São Paulo to Manaus is four and a half hours [by air]. To get from Recife in the north to Porto Alegre in the south is much the same. It’s a bit like going from Boston to Denver. That happened, obviously, in the 1994 World Cup and people got on with it, though certainly we had an infrastructure that was much more accustomed to coping with that sort of thing.
I think you get on with it and you expect the unexpected. You expect that things won’t always go to plan. That’s what’s great about working for ESPN - they have a lot of people whose job it is to have Plans B, C, D, E and F. That’s comforting when you’re at the sharp end and thinking, “Right, am I going to make it here in time for kickoff?” The flight will land at 2:00, and the game’s at 8, and you have to get through traffic and you might be struggling.
But honestly, I’ve always viewed that sort of thing as part of life’s rich pageant. When you go to the World Cup, you’re not there as a VIP sitting there in a luxury box. You’re there as a commentator covering it warts and all sometimes. I’ve always enjoyed that, from the first one I covered in 1990 in Italy - when things weren’t always perfect either.
I have to ask, of course, how you think the United States will fare in this incredible group they’ve been drawn in with Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
I think it’s going to be difficult. I think we have to start by saying that. The draw is often such a huge factor in how well teams can do. I think that having Ghana first might be to the benefit of the U.S.A., but obviously, only if they win the game.
Germany and Portugal are two incredibly hard nuts to crack. The U.S.A. have done it before against Portugal, obviously, and they’ve run Germany close - I was at that game in 2002 in [Ulsan, South] Korea.* But I think that analytically, you’ve got to say that the U.S.A. will probably have to play above itself to get out of that group. And again, it can, because American teams of the recent past have demonstrated they can do that.
I’ve watched them quite a lot, with interest. I’m not sure about the defense - I think that’s maybe the one area where there is a bit of concern. It strikes me that Jürgen [Klinsmann, the head coach] has tried a few different things. When it comes down to it, he probably goes back to the MLS pairing, doesn’t he, of [Los Angeles’ Omar] González and [Kansas City’s Matt] Besler. Just for want of anything better.
But I think that Ghana game is absolutely pivotal to the whole thing, and I do think the U.S.A. must look at it as a game they have to win.
* - If you haven’t seen that game, take a deep breath and click here.
The prevailing wisdom over here, rightly or wrongly, is that if the U.S. beats Ghana and Germany beats Portugal, the Portugese will have to beat the U.S., and might crack under pressure. What do you think of that?
I’m not sure I see it that way. Portugal went down to Germany in the last Euros in the first game [and went on to advance to the knockout round]. I don’t know that Portugal are the kind of team that will panic.
But I think the U.S.A. have got to take care of business themselves, and they’ve got to say, “We’ve got to take care of business against Ghana.” I don’t know that a draw really is good enough. It might end up being that way but I think they’ve got to go into it thinking they must beat a very good Ghana side.
The great thing about this is that we can plan all this out in our minds and there will be some little caveat, some little wrinkle, that will be thrown in that nobody anticipates. That’s why we enjoy it so much. So it’s definitely not a lost cause for the U.S.A., but I think they go in as underdogs.
I think it’s good to embrace that role. I’ve always thought that the U.S.A. are at their best when they go in with expectations low. It’s maybe my one concern, a bit - and it’s a tribute, as well, to the strides the national team has made in recent years - that the fans maybe expect a bit more than they ought to based on the level of the team at the moment.
I’m not sure they’re better than they were in 2010. I’m not convinced. I don’t watch every game the way you do, so I would bow to the judgment of those who watch them game in and game out. But I’m not sure they’re quite as good as they were four years ago, and I think the group is a bit more difficult. So on both counts, the U.S.A. are going to have to play above themselves.
All I would say is, be realistic going into it, enjoy it, whatever happens - whether the U.S.A. go through or not. And I would hope that there isn’t a berating session if they don’t make it, as if that’s somehow wrong and against the natural order of events.
You talk about planning things out in our heads, and that natural order of events at a World Cup. There’s two teams that I think are going to be in the biggest spotlight of all, and under the biggest pressure of all along with it: Brazil and Argentina.
Both teams are loaded with stars - especially Neymar and Lionel Messi - and they’re going to be playing on home soil. What do you think it’s going to be like for those two nations?
It’s interesting that you identify those two teams. I’ve said to a few people the starting position is that Brazil and Argentina are the favorites. Probably in that order, though there’s not much between the two of them.
Geography is a gargantuan factor in this. Spain and Germany, obviously you can make strong cases for either country. But the pressure is going to be intense for Brazil. There’s no doubt. They’re on home soil, people will expect them to win. Even though it’s maybe not the most gifted Brazilian side ever, it’s not a bad team.
And it’s maybe not unlike what we saw from Brazil in ’94, when people said they weren’t anything special or as good as other teams that came close before, in ’82 or ’86. But they went on and won that World Cup in the United States.
I think that’s going to be the most difficult thing - the sheer craziness of playing in your home country and everybody wanting a piece of you, which they will in Brazil. I wouldn’t think it will bother them unduly - most of the playeres are hardened professionals, and they’ve faced pressure before.
I think for Argentina, it will be similar. They’re on home soil - almost - but it will feel like home, I think. The big question I have is, will this be Messi’s World Cup? Is this going to be his time to really shine on the world stage? He’s going to need a bit of help. You can’t do it on your own. [Diego] Maradona, as good as he was, didn’t do it on his own, even though he was the outstanding player of the World Cup in ’86.
So I think those two, for me, have particular appeal in the World Cup, because it’s a South American World Cup. I’d reiterate the point that a European team has never won [a World Cup] in South America. These records are made to be broken. It will happen one of these days. But I would tend to start with Brazil and Argentina as the two teams to make favorites.
Here’s my last question. You have watched the growth of MLS both as an insider with New England and as an outsider living abroad. What have you made of the league’s evolution?
I’m truly astounded by the evolution of the league in the last few years. It has kicked on in a way that I don’t think most of us could have imagined. I sometimes wonder if everybody appreciates it. Because I think it has found itself, in a funny kind of way.
I don’t get to watch every game, I keep an eye on it and I look at the younger players coming through. I still say, and I’ve said this to a few people before, that the one thing MLS has done that really people don’t want to give it credit for, is that it has given a generation of young American soccer players the chance to play professionally. Whether that is in the U.S.A. or whether that is in Europe, eventually.
I think that in the early years, it didn’t quite know what it was. It was desperately trying to be American, with the shootout and some of these things. It was trying at the same time to not be the NASL. It was sort of trying a bit too hard to not be too many things. But I think obviously the people who run MLS decided at a certain point: we need to let this be a soccer league. And it strikes me that that’s what’s happened.
Yes, there are imperfections. Not everybody is going to be happy with the playoff system. I suppose you could maybe make an argument that expansion has happened too much. But that would be a very minor quibble, I think. MLS now has the respect of most people who look at it around the world.
And it’s not just because of Beckham, either. Beckham obviously gave the league a boost from a PR point of view. No doubt about that. People obviously took notice of the fact that Beckham was playing in it. But it just seems to me that it has found itself.
We began by talking about the New England Revolution, and maybe we can end on that - they’ve got a tremendously exciting young player in [Diego] Fagundez. He looks as though he’s the real thing - somebody who could go on to have a fantastic football career. And here he is in Massachusetts. So more power to [MLS], and I’ll certainly continue to watch it with interest. I’m delighted to see that it’s on the up-and-up.