TORONTO — It is the first half of the Mexico-Sweden game at the 2018 World Cup, and a foul is called when a sliding defender causes an attacker to be tripped to the ground.
“That’s a no-doubter,” Kristian Jack says, watching on television. Steven Caldwell, his colleague, comes over to see the replay. “You’re going to disagree because you’ve done that hundreds of times,” Jack says, a slight grin on his face.
Caldwell watches. “No foul,” he says.
“He chopped him to the ground!” Jack responds with faux exasperation. Caldwell strides away. “Not a foul,” he repeats over his shoulder.
It is the kind of disagreement between mates that happens in front of a soccer match on countless coaches and barstools, particularly in early summer every four years. These mates, though, aren’t doing it in their living room or at a pub. They are needling each other in the wide expanse of Studio 6, the main set at TSN’s campus in northern Toronto, where Jack, Caldwell and Luke Wileman are in the middle of a monthlong marathon that is at once a slog and also a blast.
The stalwarts of TSN’s coverage of the World Cup — Wileman is the host, Jack and Caldwell the analysts — have been camped at the studio since mid-June, arriving in the early morning alongside the cleaning staff and leaving in early evening, when the final post-game show is wrapped. For weeks now, they have followed the same pattern in which they put together a pre-game show, then watch the first half so they can discuss it at halftime, then watch the rest, then do a post-game show, then do it all over again for the next game. Somewhere in there they eat.
It seems like it might be a bit of a grind.
“It’s not a grind for me,” says Caldwell. “I mean, it’s the World Cup, let’s be honest.”
Wileman says they would otherwise just be doing this in some other way.
“Having grown up watching World Cups at home and having all those days where you sit on the couch watching it all day with your friends, that’s almost what this is,” he says. “Just with more stress and pressure.”
The three men have been the faces of TSN’s soccer coverage for years now. Wileman worked for the BBC in his native England before coming to Canada in 2006, where he is a regular play-by-play man on MLS broadcasts and host of international coverage. Jack has been a reporter and analyst at TSN for five years, after a decade at the Score, where he co-hosted the popular Footy Show, and Caldwell played professionally for 15 years, at several clubs in England, Toronto FC, and the Scottish national team.
“I’m lucky that my first real job in broadcasting was with these two, because they’re so good,” Caldwell says. “If I think I can just swan in because I’ve played a couple of games, and say what I want and be that arrogant pro, I’m going to be left standing there.”
Jack returns the compliment to his colleague, saying that he’s never seen a former athlete who does as much preparation as Caldwell, so the two of them can have an actual informed conversation about tactics in, say, Iran-Morocco.
“We know that none of us are going to let each other down or be the weak link,” says Wileman. “Also, you know what you can get away with.” That easy familiarity comes when they poke Caldwell about his tendency to side with defenders, for example, but watching them work it is easy to see how comfortable they are with one another.
Once the pre-game show is over, Studio 6 becomes a vast den, with several monitors wheeled in front of the main desk so the panellists can watch the game action. On this morning, because two key matches are running concurrently, Wileman watches Germany-South Korea while Jack sits on a folding chair in front of one of the side monitors — the one sometimes used for touchscreen analysis in their broadcasts — and studies Mexico-Sweden.
On the giant screen that serves as the video backdrop to the panel, a producer pipes in FIFA’s “tactics camera,” an overhead shot of most of the field. Caldwell likes to watch this as it gives a better sense of what the teams are trying to do to each other strategically. He stands in front of it, the big screen looming over him, and sometimes walks back to the desk to jot down a note.
As halftime approaches of the final Group F matches on Wednesday, the three men and their producers figure out what they will discuss.
Wileman calls over to Jack, still watching his game.
“Has this been (Mexico’s) worst half of the tournament so far?” he asks.
“You could say that,” Jack says.
“Well, would it be right?”
Jack thinks for a moment. “Yeah, it is,” he says. That tidbit makes it into the halftime show that is about to air.
Later, with Sweden trouncing Mexico and Germany still scoreless against the Koreans, it becomes apparent that the morning matches could bring a huge upset. Jack, Caldwell and Wileman variously get up and start moving around the big studio, pacing like managers themselves as the calamitous result for Germany gets closer and closer. By the time Korea scores in stoppage time to finish them off, the panellists are back at their desk, ties properly knotted again, sponsor drinks strategically placed in front of them (they do actually drink them sometimes), ready to try to explain what in the world just happened.
“For us it’s not only gathering the emotion that is being displayed, but it’s like, ‘how do I convey this in a way that the moment deserves?’” Jack says.
“I still get goose bumps when big moments happen,” he says. “And I’m glad that I do.”
Caldwell follows that point: “I don’t think it’s lost on us that the moments we remember watching as kids, in ’90 or ’94 — I’m younger than these old guys — are still very prominent in our memories,” he says. “Those moments meant a lot to us.”
“And we lived those moments through TV,” Wileman says. “Italia 1990, that was our World Cup. For young people across Canada, this will be their World Cup.”
When the broadcast goes live again, they are off, discussing not just the Germany disaster, but Mexico’s narrow escape because of it. Jack starts recalling past Mexican failures in the knockout round, and it seems like quite the high-wire act for live television, but one of his secrets is a 300-page notebook that he has compiled, full of handwritten notes, in several colours of ink, on each team and past tournaments.
“Some people would look at this and go, ‘It’s very 1995,’” Jack says. But it works for him. “The four-colour pen is key,” he says, holding one up. It looks very 1988.
The wild ending for Germany-Mexico came after similar thrilling finishes and late goals on Monday and Tuesday.
“It’s been a joy to work on,” says Jack. “It’s been great to see the interesting storylines and the level of play go together.”
“It’s funny to say in a tournament when there’s been so many goals, but there’s been some good defending,” Caldwell says. He continues with his point, but Jack and Wileman are already tittering at the onetime defender as he makes it.
“He’d be much happier if every game was nil-nil,” Wileman says.
Their interview finished, the three men get up to leave Studio 6 and head home.
They will be back, to watch some soccer with friends, tomorrow.
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