Friday marks the start of soccer's famed quadrennial European championships, and all the Euro 2012 action from Poland and the Ukraine will be broadcast live on TSN (26 games), TSN2 (four games) and CTV (one game) from June 8 to July 1. In addition to the games, TSN will have pre- and post-game coverage and a nightly wrap-up show led by current analysts Luke Wileman and Jason deVos and new hire Darren Anderton, who spent 12 years with Tottenham Hotspur and earned 30 caps for the English national team. Wileman, deVos and Anderton joined a conference call Tuesday to discuss the tournament and why Canadians should care about it, and they had some interesting things to say.
Anderton's hire is an interesting one, as most English players probably don't see Canada as a natural market to explore soccer from the broadcasting side. He said he's thrilled to get the chance to work with TSN on this tournament, though, and he's always had a soft spot for Canada.
"I was here as a 10-year-old," he said. "It was a lovely opportunity to come back to Toronto."
Some foreign analysts tend to dumb things down when working in markets where soccer's less prominent, but Anderton said he won't approach this any differently than he would if broadcasting in England.
"I don't think so, no," he said. "It's the same sort of thing."
Indeed, it's a credit to TSN's approach here that their team seems very focused on covering this as a serious soccer tournament, not as a spectacle. The European championships are right up there with the World Cup in terms of on-pitch competition, and Wileman said the strong 16-team field (as opposed to the 32 teams in each World Cup, some of which are filler) means the average level of play in this tournament can be higher than what's seen at a World Cup.
"The quality of the tournament is at a really high level," he said. "I think the European championships actually have the better concentration of teams. You don't have the teams in the group stage that are just there to make up the numbers."
deVos said that makes this a perfect tournament for neutrals or casual fans to watch.
"From a neutral perspective or even a non-soccer fan's perspective, there will be a tremendous calibre of play on tap in almost every game," he said.
That viewpoint is shared by some top players, including Andres Iniesta of Spain, the reigning champions at both the World Cup and the European championships and a betting favourite again this time. Anderton said Spain have it particularly tough heading into this tournament, though, given the focus on their past success.
"They're on a pedestal," he said. "Teams like Germany, Holland, France, Italy, they're all very hungry."
Anderton said it will also be difficult for Spain to maintain the high standard of play they've shown in the past few tournaments.
"They've won the last two major tournaments, but to keep producing that sort of form isn't easy," he said.
The Spanish side has also suffered some crucial injuries lately, including ones to stars Carlos Puyol and David Villa. deVos said while Spain has solid depth, those losses will still hurt them.
"I don't know if it's possible to replace someone of David Villa's quality," he said.
The Germans enter the tournament as one of the favourites along with Spain, and all three of TSN's analysts picked them to beat the Netherlands in the final. deVos said the youth and superlative midfield play of Die Mannschaft will make them difficult to beat.
"The Germans in particular, their midfield is clicking nicely and they're all at the perfect age, in their mid-20s," deVos said.
A team that doesn't have as much hype but could surprise is co-host Poland, which qualified automatically but won their last five friendlies and tied Germany in the match before that. Wileman said they'll be a team to watch.
"Their friendly results are pretty impressive," he said. "They've got a really good chance to make a few waves in the tournament as one of the dark horses."
deVos pegged Poland's Robert Lewandowski, who plays with Germany's Borussia Dortmund, as a potential breakout star and scoring leader of the tournament.
"Most people would agree Group A is the weakest, and he's coming off a great club season," deVos said.
Wileman said he thinks Cristiano Ronaldo will dazzle as expected, but he doesn't see Portugal lasting long enough for Ronaldo to claim the golden boot.
"I would go with Ronaldo, but I don't think Portugal will make it out of the group," he said. "I've got the Netherlands going to the final, so I'll go with Robin van Persie."
Anderton concurred, saying van Persie or Miroslav Klose are the most likely golden boot candidates in his estimation. He pegged Germany's Mesut Özil as perhaps the tournament's most dominant player, though.
"Özil could be very much the player of the tournament," Anderton said. "He's a great talent."
Anderton is also interested to watch his former national team, and he thinks the low expectations for England could help them.
"The English team's had many problems recently, a new manager, lots of injuries," he said. "There's less expectations. People back home aren't expecting much and I think that will help us."
Some will certainly dismiss this tournament as a foreign event with no relevance to Canada, but deVos (a former Canadian national team star) said he's optimistic watching soccer at this level will inspire the next generation of Canadian soccer players, as watching high-level soccer at the 1986 World Cup really motivated him growing up.
"[I hope] watching will spark the interest of of a 10- or 11-year-old somewhere, who will go on to put on the jersey and represent Canada at the international level," he said. "That's what did it for me."