On the list of things that people get insanely annoyed about, TV sports punditry is near the top.
Nobody is immune. Readers of this newspaper who, I imagine, are calm and reserved, and rarely spew vitriol, will write to me to complain about the tennis coverage on TSN, using shockingly strong language. I do understand. When the international soccer is on TV, I am gripped not just by the game, but by the way the tournament is presented.
Euro 2020, postponed to 2021, unfolded here on TSN at a very interesting point in the history and development of soccer coverage. Both Sportsnet and TSN have reduced their coverage, largely because a lot of soccer is now available only on specialist-streaming services. Familiar faces and voices, notably James Sharman, Kristian Jack and Craig Forrest, are now found on podcasts or the specialty service onesoccer.ca, not on mainstream TV. In this new environment, exactly how TSN would approach this Euro was a matter of considerable interest.
It turned out reasonably well. We were spared the all-out, Anglo-centric attitude that was exemplified in TSN’s coverage of the last World Cup, when there was an entirely male panel of experts with British accents. What we got this time, along with Luke Wileman as anchor, was Kevin Kilbane, Janine Beckie, Steven Caldwell and Julian de Guzman.
One side note here before going further – the insistence on using players and former players as in-studio experts is weirdly ingrained in TV executives. It’s simply not true that only former players have real insight. Often, what’s missing from entertaining soccer coverage is the knack of storytelling and use of language that comes from covering the sport in print. Not every former player is articulate enough to carry a broadcast with wit and sagacity.
The appearance of Kilbane on TSN was a surprise to me and many others. I had no idea the former player for several Premier League clubs and the Republic of Ireland had married a Canadian skater and had moved here. On TSN he was first-rate, offering solid commentary, a few dashes of wit and he knows how to tell a story. Kilbane has been doing commentary for years in Britain and Ireland, and unlike many former players, takes it seriously. He’s no celebrity-with-a-glib-quote merchant. After he retired as a player, he earned a degree in journalism in England, specializing in sports broadcasting.
Of course, given the intensity that surrounds a Euro tournament, there was some online abuse aimed at the unfamiliar Kilbane. All of it was unfair. He’s a good addition to soccer punditry here and, unlike those who attacked him online, he can write and craft a narrative.
Janine Beckie was good, too, after starting nervously. Her presence was a reminder of the great all-women panel TSN employed for the last Women’s World Cup – eloquent and passionate. Beckie probably mentioned her connection to Manchester City a tad too often, but she’s a smart, clear-eyed commentator.
The inclusion of Scotland in the early round of the Euro meant Steven Caldwell was in fine fettle, having played 12 times for his native Scotland before coming here to join Toronto FC. A segment in which he arrived at the TSN studio in his tartan regalia, accompanied by a bagpiper, was both funny and sweet. Caldwell and Kilbane might have been in agreement too often during the coverage, but you don’t always need sparks flying to have a satisfying segment. And in the matter of articulation, all of the pundits say “yeah,” when they mean “yes,” forgetting that it’s important to be emphatic about your meaning.
Some special sequences done for the Euro by TSN were superb, each one linking the game to Canada and one in particular, about the Driftwood Hispanic Soccer League, narrated by Julian de Guzman, was outstanding. The soft-spoken de Guzman is still finding his feet on TV, but he’s been good and getting better on Major League Soccer broadcasts.
Listen, all of this matters. It matters to the soccer fan and casual viewers how a Canadian broadcaster presents a tournament when the world’s game is being played. The British-born white-male thing should be over by now in soccer coverage, and at least TSN transcended that somewhat by having Beckie and de Guzman on board. It got it right, mostly, in covering a great tournament, one with more drama and twists than your Netflix menu.
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