A week into this year’s World Cup, Fox lead play-by-play announcer John Strong will turn 33 years old. That’s incredibly young for a broadcaster to call the most prestigious tournament in the world, especially for someone like Strong who specializes in soccer.
“It’s surreal,” Strong told Awful Announcing at a recent media event in New York. “It’s your dream of doing something your whole life and you’re actually on the verge of doing it.”
Strong will call matches with analyst Stu Holden, beginning with the highly-anticipated Portugal-Spain match on Friday, and will call group and knockout stage matches leading up to the final on July 15 from Moscow.
If you’ve seen Strong call Major League Soccer, the U.S. men’s national team, or other international competitions, you know he’s a very skilled game caller. Strong’s biggest challenge during his first men’s World Cup will be staying mentally focused and out of his own head.
Strong said that Fox scheduled the group stage matches he’s calling to get at least one look at as many projected teams in the final 16 as possible, with the exception of Mexico and Uruguay. And aside from missing his family for 40 days, Strong said his biggest concern is getting all the necessary preparation done before the matches begin so he can truly appreciate the energy and the excitement of the World Cup. With just one off day in between the group and knockout stages, “there’s no time, really, in between to prep,” he said.
“At least year’s Confederations Cup [also held in Russia], I was so behind getting prepped that I sort of twisted myself into this knot of stress and anxiety,” Strong said. “I locked myself in the hotel, and I’m turning out notes. I didn’t really get to soak up any of the atmosphere around the city.”
Fox added Strong in January 2015, and it was a general assumption since then that he would call the 2018 World Cup. So after more than three years of anticipation, Strong is trying to deal with the big event finally being here by going into what he called his zen place.
“Just trying to stay in a little bubble of not getting too caught up,” Strong said. “Because I think in times when I’ve done that, the stress and the anxiety or whatever sort of got to me. And I’ve been trying really hard to just keep it as normal [as I can] like I’m calling games. That’s what I do. And try not to get too out of body about ‘oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, it’s the World Cup.’ You know what I mean?”
But everywhere he’s gone and during every media event or responsibility it’s what’s being talked about, making it impossible for Strong not to think about being Fox’s lead World Cup broadcaster. After calling the U.S.-Bolivia friendly on May 28, the last game he called before heading to Russia, Strong woke up “with this sort of rush, like butterflies, energy.” Strong assumed there will be more moments like that leading up to his first match on Friday, and channeling that rush and that energy for Portugal-Spain will be crucial.
Like every major sporting event, broadcasters must grapple with calling games to appease both hardcore and casual fans. And with the U.S. not competing in this World Cup, getting and maintaining the interest of those casual fans becomes doubly important. The biggest challenge for Strong in that regard will be to not do or say too much on the broadcasts, because the studio shows and various other planned segments will usually cover the major storylines.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes I can make is trying too hard,” Strong said. “Trying too hard to hype it. Trying too hard show off, ‘I might be an American but I know what I’m doing,’ that type of thing.”
Strong proceeded to drop a Mark Twain quote about trying too hard.
“Better to be to be silent and thought a fool than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt,” he said. “And that’s sort of my guiding light for this. Don’t necessarily do it any differently in any vast sort of way than I would calling a game.”
Strong said he won’t take for granted that everyone watching will know how Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo fared last season, or if everyone will know how well Egypt’s Mo Salah played domestically for Liverpool.
“There’s an awareness, absolutely, that you have casual fans that don’t watch soccer regularly,” Strong said. “So you have to be mindful of that, but I think if I try to fill the full 90 minutes with hype and stories and anecdotes, that ends up doing a disservice. Finding that right balance, exactly, of welcoming in the big tent, but also letting Stu [Holden] do his job, letting the pictures do their job without making me fill up the whole thing with noise.”
All of Strong’s preparation, and really his entire career, will lead up to the final on July 15, the biggest worldwide sporting event there is. So it’s only human nature that Strong has fast-forwarded to that moment, wondering what the crowd and that enormous stage will be like.
“I sort of think through in my head, how might I call certain moments? How might I call certain things? What are things that I’ve done for other finals that I might do for this?” Strong said. “But I also sort of deliberately try to not have expectations for what I think’s gonna happen. That’s why I don’t do predictions.”
Strong said he’d like to have as blank a slate as possible as to who will play in the World Cup final and how he might call that match.
“But absolutely, an awareness of calling a World Cup final is a singular event, and what do I need to do differently, but how do I also— like I said earlier— not do so much differently or do so much extra that I end up getting in my own way,” he said. “So [it’s] finding that balance.”
Last year, Strong said he had a conversation with legendary English broadcaster Martin Tyler, who led ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup— the two share an agent— and one of the major things Tyler tried to impress Strong on was how he didn’t have to do all this extra stuff just because it’s the World Cup final.
“Call the game the way you know how to call a game,” Strong said Tyler advised him to do. “And all you do by trying to affect too much focus on ‘oh my god, it’s the World Cup final,’ now you’ve gotten away from what you did to get there.”