In just two weeks, the 2022 World Cup final match will be played in the Lusail Iconic Stadium in Lusail, Qatar. At its final moment, all of those whose DNA does not include the soccer chromosome (xyxvy) will cast our collective last “Huh?”
Watching soccer on television is basically all I have done since The Beautiful Game began its quadrennial tournament on November 21. While I’ve enjoyed it, I’m left wondering why. This, after watching about 218 hours of competition, not counting stoppage. In all that time, it’s clear to me that I know about as much about soccer now as I did when I was made an assistant coach of my son’s youth soccer team.
“It’ll be fun,” head coach Jay said to me as he thrust a clipboard and whistle into my chest.
Since we ended every match—win or lose—at Baskin-Robbins, it was fun.
I grew up in the era of assuming that soccer was a Commie sport. I don’t know why. And I don’t know why we never played the game, which is kind of a cross between keep-away and kick ball in which you can’t touch the ball with your hands. The goalie, however, can touch the ball as much as he wants and is allowed to wear gloves the size of catcher’s mitts. He is also required to wear clothes that don’t match any of the other players. Another mystery.
In the meantime, in yet another soccer fashion statement, a goodly number of any team’s players wear smocks that might indicate that they are finger painting between halves or auditioning to become caddies in the PGA. What is with the smocks?
A French man who lived in my neighborhood when I was a kid drove a truck that delivered candy, nuts and packaged cupcakes to various places. His name was Bob, though he was generally called “Frenchy” by the adults in the neighborhood, which was the giveaway to his national origin. The neighborhood kids were always welcome at his corner house to eat day-old product. We’d gather in his basement where, in a corner, was a black-and-white television about the size of a breadbox. It had rabbit-ear antennae with a strip of aluminum foil bridging the span between their ends. Its grainy image was that of Mexican soccer captured through UHF broadcasts from, I’m guessing here, Mexico.
The cupcakes were more important than the games, and so an entire neighborhood of six-year-old Chicago boys remained ignorant of just about every aspect of soccer and slightly under-nourished by the copious amounts of sugar intake.
That all changed when we grew up and had kids of our own. That was when we wouldn’t let our kids know of the pleasure of Hostess products and we made them play soccer because it was slightly less dangerous than football. Soccer took hold of our nation’s psyche as a part of a worldly education, right up there with math, sub-particle physics and other Yuppie concerns; the earliest soccer moms drove Volvos, switching to Dodge Caravans when the need for more gear was noticed. Youth soccer was as PC as one could get in the 1980s.
Next to cricket, soccer is the least understood sport since the Egyptians created badminton. Injuries are a constant, making the whole game seem to be a ballet in which most of the lead dancers fall down. The players are all graduates of Lee Strasberg’s School of Method Acting so it makes it difficult to determine if any injury might be real. Those that seem real is enough to have two trainers come running onto the pitch to render assuring words and Powerade or, in the case of the team from France, assuring words and a choice of three wines—a richly tannic Bordeaux, a fruity Pinot Noir and an elegantly fragrant Viognier.
The referee, who seems as friendly as can be with the players, is equipped with an ear bud and a microphone headset. Offsides is an infraction of soccer rules, but there’s nobody who can give a definition. What happens is that as soon as one of the announcers says somebody is offsides, the referee calls the foul. Or not.
The referee is also able to call a variety of infractions, from tripping, pushing, shoving and various other things that cause a player to crash to the earth. He, although it might be a she, has a little yellow card that looks like a paint chip from Sherwin-Williams. If a player happens to crush an opponent’s knee, that player is shown the yellow card, with a stern warning to stop that kind of behavior. If he crushes the other knee, he is shown the yellow card, followed quickly by a red card. That means the offending player must spend the off-season watching slo-mo replays of the guy getting his knee crushed.
The other players get to spend the off season getting tattooed in Marseilles.
My devotion to The Beautiful Game seems something of a mystery. I love the speed, the tactics, the wanton disregard for rules or safety. I love the fact that each team, recognized by nationality, only needs one native from each country to compete. That means that the rest of the Argentinian team, for instance, can be from Greenland, Laos and the far reaches of Siberia.
Soccer is soon to be over, and I intend to spend the winter studying cricket. Might as well enjoy two sports I don’t understand.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
Wine Braised Short Ribs
This is some serious comfort food. Serve with torn pieces of baguettes.
5-6 pounds bone-in beef short ribs, cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs. vegetable oil
3 medium onions, chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 Tbs.tomato paste
1750 ml bottle dry red wine (preferably Cabernet Sauvignon)
10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
8 sprigs thyme
4 sprigs oregano
2 sprigs rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
4 cups beef stock
Heat oven to 350°. Season short ribs with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high. Working in batches, brown short ribs on all sides, about 8 minutes per batch. Transfer short ribs to a plate. Pour off all but 3 Tbsp. drippings from pot.
Add onions, carrots, and celery to pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until onions are browned, about 5 minutes. Add flour and tomato paste; cook, stirring constantly, until well combined and deep red, 2-3 minutes. Stir in wine, then add short ribs with any accumulated juices. Bring to a boil; lower heat to medium and simmer until wine is reduced by half, about 25 minutes. Add all herbs to pot along with garlic. Stir in stock. Bring to a boil, cover, and transfer to oven.
Cook until short ribs are tender, 2–2½ hours. Transfer short ribs to a platter. Strain sauce from pot into a measuring cup. Spoon fat from surface of sauce and discard; season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in shallow bowls over mashed potatoes with sauce.