When I got off work early last Wednesday, instead of catching the train home, I found myself at Luigi’s Pizza, home of two large high-def flat screens mounted catch any soccer game being played anywhere in the world at any time. I caught the last half of the South Africa/Uruguay game, heatedly debating the penalties with three Italian strangers.
I couldn’t care less about the World Series. I go to the movies during the Super Bowl. I had to Google “basketball” to find out that “NBA Finals” is what that championship is called. The Stanley Cup? I dare you to find something that bores me more. I always hope the Phillies and the Flyers and the Eagles and the 76ers (don’t quiz me on which team plays which sport) wouldn’t clinch it because I want the insufferable parade to be held in a city where I’m not trying to get to work.
Hockey is graceful and exciting to watch, but what’s with the incessant fighting? And forget about football. As far as I can tell, the players collectively pummel each other (according to rules that I don’t think anyone really understands) for about four seconds before a lengthy break for beer, razor and E*Trade commercials. Every once in a while, the four seconds is enough for someone to carry the ball to the end zone. Then all the men in the room raise their arms straight up over their heads for a special kind of deafening, laborious vertical clap.
The danger of a baseball game is that if it’s not resolved in nine innings (and is the “top” the beginning of the inning? Or is it the end?), it will go on indefinitely until someone wins. If there is a hell and I end up there, it will be a sporting event with no predetermined ending. Basketball can be moderately interesting to watch, I guess, but when the players are scoring so many points, are the baskets really that exciting? And, like their shorter, beefier counterparts in baseball and football, basketball players are usually such extraordinary physical specimens that I can’t relate to them very well.
But there is something about the World Cup. Maybe you scoff that, as wife to a South African, it’s my spousal duty to cheer this year’s FIFA World Cup and I’m making the best of it. But compared to the hulking pads of the football and hockey players, and the billed hats and bulging biceps of the baseball players, soccer players seem light, handsome and vulnerable. After all, they’re tearing around on a pitch where they’re supposed to handle the ball with the very same appendages they’re using to run, and all they have is a guard strapped to their shapely shins. They are lithe men of relatively average build and muscle, and we revel in their speed and dexterity over their size and brute power.
Another perk of their simple uniforms and lack of headwear is the hair. One of the first things I ever noticed about soccer players was the hair. Bounding, flinging dreads, intricate cornrows, thick, flamboyant crests, Mohawks, thrashing beds of corkscrew curls or just a shaggy mane that makes a soaked and stringy halo in the header slow-motion replay. More than any other sport, the hair seems essential to the soccer field.
I also enjoy the way the entire game momentarily halts for the contested plays (which happen about every thirteen seconds) so everyone can appeal to the referee like ten-year-olds calling Mom to arbitrate who really called the front seat. A player who hopes he’s been fouled spreads his arms in supplication like a medieval pilgrim pleading for the life of a plague-stricken child at the local shrine. Of course, the player who elbowed him or tugged his shirt puts his palms in the air as if he’s been caught in the bank vault with a pound of C4 (“Not ME! I was just trying to kick the ball!”). I like watching all those fleet, powerful, overwrought men hang on the ref’s instant decision. It reminds me of the days that Mom and Dad could settle an argument with a single irate word – however mad you were, the thing was done and you moved on.
No soccer player has perfected the art of staying on his feet. He perfects the art of getting up quickly. Staying upright is not considered when wresting the ball from opponents. I also like the gravity-defying goalies and defenders: a slow-mo Shamu could not muster more drama or fling more water droplets than an airborne FIFA player. In the instant replay, they’re suspended like sweaty, wild-eyed albatrosses over a sea of grass before they land like a lunchbox dropped from a helicopter.
But even the drama of the airborne save can’t compete with the excruciating injuries occurring about every two minutes. No victim of 19th century surgery sans anesthesia ever flailed with such agony. I am always shocked at how, after sustaining what are evidently grievous hurts – compound fractures of the femur, at least – in less than a minute the player is absorbed in his next sprint. I used to wonder how FIFA players could continue after the injury such unbridled expressions of anguish implied: pounding the turf as if it’s the last door on a sinking submarine and clutching their shins as if a hot poker and not a soccer cleat had touched it.
Or is being wholly seized and wracked by their pain on an international stage precisely what lets the players move on so quickly, the same way heated marital arguments can be healthier than resentful silence? Perhaps a little more momentary unbridled emotion would save us a lot of grief with family, friends and co-workers.
Or perhaps soccer players are just big babies. If this is the case, I have a suggestion for FIFA to reduce the play-stealing time that footballers spend gasping on the turf because somebody let his elbow go a little wild. This year, FIFA refs don’t seem equipped to notice when goals happen or when someone’s really off-sides, anyway. So send the refs packing and bring in some moms. They could be from any country, and they could have a whistle and a fanny pack with some Band-Aids. Unlike FIFA referees, moms are infallible. They could learn the rules of the free kick, but more important, I think, FIFA could give them the authority to kiss it better.