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You Know About Soccer Because of TSN

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The UEFA European Football Championships start Friday but I won't be plumping pillows in Poland or drinking champagne in Ukraine.

I'll be watching the games on TV just like everybody else.

Euro 2012 begins amidst the backdrop of several scandals and flashpoints: There's been yet another betting and bribes scandal in Italy, the Polish government suspended the entire Polish Football Federation for corruption, and the head of UEFA, Michel Platini, said he will order games stopped if players are racially abused.

The BBC documentary series Panorama recently featured a programme titled "Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate," which included recent footage of supporters chanting various antisemitic slogans and parading symbols and banners of the white power movement.

Oh, and by the way, did you know that Ukraine has come under criticism from animal welfare organizations for killing stray cats and dogs in order to prepare for Euro 2012?

What about the mass immigration of prostitutes from around Europe, eager to earn big with the mass influx of fans and their cash? Oh, and there's the ubiquitous talk of terrorism.

But I'll be watching the games on television just like everybody else.

Most Canadians have ties to somewhere else, and that gives us an excuse to scream and shout and paint our faces, gather in common areas to watch the ball moving around the mystical patch of green that somehow manages to unite people around the globe.

The last time around in 2008, I found out who won because two guys were walking down the middle of Church street in downtown Toronto, each holding up the Spanish flag. They were singing and laughing.

They were also stark naked.

It was the Gay Pride Parade and I was covering the event for a segment of a documentary series that I was producing entitled "Rites of Passage". I'd never been to a Pride event before, but it struck me that even here, among the hundreds of thousands of revellers, Spain's 1-0 victory over Germany in the final of UEFA 2008, well, meant something.

We take it for granted that all the big soccer games and tournaments will be shown on Canadian TV. But soccer's broadcast origins in Canada only began to flourish in the mid 1980s.

There was no soccer on TV back then. Well, the CBC did show the English FA Cup Final on a week delay basis once a year. The World Cup rights were bought out by private entrepreneurs, and if you wanted to see matches, you went to Maple Leaf Gardens and watched it on the big screen along with 15,000 other fans, most of whom were smoking during the match and you had to leave because your eyes couldn't take it any more.

But during the late 70s and early 80s the North American Soccer League was enjoying unprecedented popularity and starting to gain a foothold in the collective consciousness of fans here and in the U.S.

ABC showed the game of the week. But no European soccer.

Outside of North America soccer was going through some trying times. In the stands, many clubs had their own organized hooligan element. In fact there were so many incidents that television coverage of soccer here in Canada consisted solely of shots of rival gangs beating on each other. In England, Margaret Thatcher was going nuts watching this.

While still at Ryerson, I landed a part time gig at the old multilingual TV station, Channel 47, now called OMNI and part of the Rogers empire.

When Channel 47 first went on air, they showed old European games on Saturday afternoons. My job was gathering the scores of games played that day in Britain, and then loading them into the character generator and showing them at halftime.

Simple, right? Primitive by today's standards in the internet age. But it was groundbreaking back then: simple things like showing scores of soccer games.

And then in 1982, CBC Sports, under the guidance of the late Jim Thompson, (who went on to become President of TSN and later CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee) bought the rights to the World Cup of soccer. Italy's historic win over West Germany in the final touched
off a spontaneous celebration on the streets of Toronto, the likes of which had never been seen before.

It was a wonderful day in Toronto's history. People were getting into the game because soccer was available on TV!

For the start of the new televsion season in September 1982, Channel 47 executive producer Dale Barnes decided to start up the World Soccer Report.

Fresh from graduating Ryerson University, I got a job working on the show. So there was me, and Dale. And two hours of time to fill on Saturdays between 4 and 6. The show became popular. Dale became a local celebrity.

But he was preaching to the converted most of the time. Soccer wasn't exactly viewed as it is today. "Soccer Sucks" became a battle cry for many local sportscasters who knew only hockey, baseball and football.

Then, the TV landscape changed forever. And soccer on TV took on a new form.

In September of 1984 we started with a weekly show The Soccer News on a fledgling cable sports network. TSN hadn't developed into the institution it is now. And soccer was definitely a low priority in the grand scheme of things there. But when Jim Thompson came over from the CBC, he changed all that.

Remember, the 80s saw 39 fans trampled to death at Heysel Stadium in Belgium. An entire stadium burned down in Bradford, England. And almost 100 crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium. Little did I know at the time that I would be the producer that was responsible for the broadcasts that showed these tragedies live and in colour.

It was Thompson who made me the producer of the 1986 World Cup from Mexico. It was an exciting time for Canadian soccer as our national team had qualified for the finals for the first time in our history.

It gave TSN the mandate to show all 52 games -- a first for Canadian television. But how to staff it with announcers? Obviously TSN didn't have the manpower, so it was then that we decided to make a deal with the BBC and ITV in England to use their announcers, piggybacking
on their audio feed and marrying it with the host broadcast signal.

The reason we have British announcers for the games from around the world today is a direct result of the 1986 World Cup done by TSN.

In 1988 we repeated the experience with the European Football Championships. The Netherlands beat Russia 2-0. Marco van Basten scored one of the most spectacular goals ever seen in a final. Still, soccer wasn't regarded as a prime property at TSN.

Then came the World Cup in Italy in 1990.

TSN made me the producer of the crew that would go to Italy. We travelled the entire country and managed to track down and interview the game's top stars, past and present. Graham Leggat was our reporter. In studio, former Manchester United and Scotland manager Tommy Docherty provided analysis and some great jokes. Both knew so many people in the game, and were invaluable.

We caught up to Diego Maradona as he was coming out of the accreditation center. Did features on the world famous Italian film studio Cinecitta. Went to the back streets of Palermo in Sicily to find out about Italian soccer hero Toto Schillaci. Had a funny conversation with an
inebriated Denis Law in Torino. Were invited to the England headquarters by Bobby Robson, Graham's former roommate at Fulham. Drank Guiness with the Irish players in Rome.

The pattern for future tournaments was set.

And now we stand on the verge of another sure-to-be historical event. It all started with a great street party on St. Clair in Toronto in 1982, it was all a result of what people saw on TV. Soccer is now regarded as a valuable sports property.

Everything you see on television in Canada today had its genesis in those days starting in the 80s at the old Channel 47 studios.