Euro 2012 has reached the knockout stage. As in, how deep can you be in the net to knock the ball out before it's called a goal? Once more, the captains of the beautiful game have taken a red card over their inability to divine soccer's elemental question: Was the ball completely over the goal-line?
Despite reaping billions from that newfangled TV invention, soccer seems incapable of using its technology to get the call right as it heads into the elimination phase of the tournament. Legendary French player Michel Platini, now the chief UEFA suit, insisted that dedicated officials on the goal-line would eliminate any need for cameras and technical mumbo-jumbo in 2012. Faced with a close call, however, Platini's hapless zebra in the England/Ukraine game looked like Wile E. Coyote scanning the horizon for the Roadrunner.
Baseball sometimes seems a captive to the romantic notion about "human error," but the willingness of soccer to absorb scorn and mockery over its refusal to enter the 21st century is remarkable. Despite clear evidence of England rescuing a Ukrainian goal that was demonstrably over the goal line this week, Michael Ballack of Germany and Alexi Lalas of the U.S., speaking on ESPN, said their sport should be cautious about getting all crazy technical.
People make mistakes, Lalas told the American TV audience. That's the human element that makes their game special. Ballack ventured that maybe Americans like that gadget stuff interrupting the contest, but soccer is above all that. It is a game of flow, and we can't have these timeouts to get it straight whether the ball was in. (While Ballack alibied, the Hungarian ref admitted his gaffe.)
Huh? When did getting it wrong take on the noble aura of random selection? Not only was the ball in the net but the play was also offside. Where's the purity in looking incompetent? Put it another way. If hockey can get this right (almost always), the short-pants boys can do it too.
TSN's daily coverage of the tournament has proved addictive for those who can play hooky during daytime hours. With its historical precedents, the Poland/Russia 1-1 tie in a roiling Warsaw Stadium might have been the best live sports event of 2012 so far. As always, the BBC announcers are by turns brilliant and inane in their commentary on the matches. That's their charm.
So what's missing? Maybe a little pizzazz in Canada. While the sport at the elite Euro level is gaining a foothold in Canada (we stood four deep in an airport on Thursday watching a single TV), it still awaits the birth of its first domestic TV star. TSN's panel of Canadian international Jason de Vos, former Tottenham Hotspur player Darren Anderton and host Luke Wileman has proved more than adequate. (As are Gerry Dobson and Craig Forrest when they anchor Sportsnet's soccer coverage on other properties.)
Everyone on Canadian soccer broadcasts is deadly earnest, smiles a lot, and the technical talk sounds authentic. But no one has reached across the footlights yet to give soccer its Gregg Zaun, Don Cherry or Matt Dunigan, a figure who transcends the sport he analyzes. This might be a policy on the part of TSN and Rogers or simply making the best of the available talent.
But in the age of communications, viewers see events on several levels. One is the game itself, the one now being dissected ably by TSN's trio. The second level, the one that kick-starts the discussion around water coolers, however, is how the game was covered by TV. Love or hate Cherry, Dunigan and Zaun, they take their sport from game to entertainment vehicle. Yes, there are the gaudy suits and tacky ties, but there is also a stickiness to how they critique that makes the game incomplete without their analysis.
The amiable De Vos looks as though he might have a spark of that inspiration. He hasn't found his onscreen identity yet. Every successful TV sports star can be summed up in an identity – John Madden was the "Pow" guy who loved Brett Favre. Cherry is the overdressed guy who likes old-time hockey. Zaun is the guy with the big ring and the unadorned assessments of the Blue Jays' failing prospects.
So far De Vos is the friendly guy who hasn't stepped beyond the obvious. He might. But if soccer wants to take that next step on Canadian TV, it needs a charismatic figure to take it the next mile.