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Process the World Cup With These Podcasts

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

To be a morally sensitive sports fan is to be a pretzel. On the one hand, you hold in your head all the reasons that should keep you at a remove from feeling so vociferously about professional sports: that it’s inherently trivial, many if not all modern sports structures are built on truly horrible systems, and almost all varieties of pro sports (at their best) are often exceptionally depressing expressions of extreme wealth inequality. On the other hand, your heart flutters for the game.

The next couple of months will magnify this dilemma for sports fans. The 2022 World Cup is two Sundays away, which means another week and change to mull over whether you’re actually going to tune in given the moral and ethical weight attached to the tournament’s staging in Qatar: The whole event has become a soft-power battleground in a broader context of dark, shady geopolitics, and thousands of migrant workers have died as part of the labor pool building stadium infrastructure over the past decade. It’s a sin and a tragedy so immense that it’s hard to comprehend.

Here in podcastland, you can see the challenge of ethically sourced sports fandom appear most directly as the subject of World Corrupt, a collaboration between Crooked Media and Men in Blazers (distributed through the former’s Pod Save the World feed), which features hosts Tommy Vietor and Roger Bennett talking through the circumstances around Qatar winning the World Cup bid, the broader “sportswashing” political phenomenon, and the growing unease of being a sports fan in general. It’s hard to think of it as a project that’s going to change any minds — alas, such are the challenges for persuasion in the modern on-demand media paradigm — but consider it an opportunity to go a little deeper into the issues at play for those already predisposed to a skeptical view of sports.

Similar meditations on the complications of modern soccer fandom are set to appear in The Last Cup/La última copa, a docuseries from Futuro Studios and NPR about Argentinian GOAT Lionel Messi. The podcast, which comes out tomorrow, takes a deep dive into the meaning and identity of Messi, who possesses a thorny relationship with Argentina given his migration history. There’s a memoiristic element to this project: Jasmine Garsd, who hosts the series, wraps her own personal history around the narrative, drawing from her experience as an migrant from Argentina in the U.S, and she sees meaning in Messi’s arc and symbol. Like many of Futuro Studio’s other projects, The Last Cup is produced as a bilingual project in the sense that two simultaneous versions — one in English, one in Spanish — were constructed in parallel as opposed to one being a straightforward translation of the other.

No matter how dark the systems behind professional sports become, there will always be juice in the belief in sports as a source for stories of hope. On Friday, ESPN’s 30 for 30 Podcasts will release Pink Card, hosted by Shima Oliaee (Dolly Parton’s America), which hooks the broader interest around the World Cup onto a story about a 40-year movement in Iran to overturn a ban preventing women from attending soccer games. Much like with Garsd in The Last Cup, Oliaee’s personal story factors into the narrative driving this project as she explores how soccer fandom served as a thread connecting her immigrant family in the U.S. to their Iranian homeland.

And for those who’ve done their moral weighing and made the decision to tune in after all, there’s certainly no shortage of soccer podcasts to serve as a layer on the experience, so just pull up a search on your favorite podcast app and pick your vibe. U.S. and U.S.-inclined listeners would likely get something out of this project from The Athletic (a division of the New York Times), which tracked the U.S. men’s national soccer team’s journey back to the World Cup after its embarrassing failure to qualify in 2018. This year’s squad is said to be young and quite talented, but since it’s the U.S. men’s team we’re talking about here, it will almost certainly crash out of the group stages — or, at best, make a valiant run to the quarterfinals.

Am I going to be watching the 2022 World Cup? I’ll twist, turn, hem, haw, but yeah, probably. It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.

More Podcast Recommendations

➽ Heads up: Unlicensed, the new audio drama from the fine folks behind Welcome to Night Vale, drops tomorrow on Audible. Set in the grungier corners of Greater Los Angeles, the series follows a private investigator and assistant setting off to solve cases so out-there that nobody else wants to touch them.

➽ Is Michael Hobbes the most interesting independent operator in podcasting? There’s something to be said about his recent activities in the open ecosystem: Last week, Hobbes, teaming up with 5-4’s Peter Shamshiri, launched a new show called If Books Could Kill. The conversational podcast instantly shot up the charts. The series is all about the widespread ideas from best sellers that may or may not have ruined our minds. The first target: Freakonomics, which, of course, is a popular podcast and audio publisher. Meanwhile, Maintenance Phase continues apace. (This is likely an appropriate time to replug my interview with Shamshiri about his recent adventures in corporate employment along with my chat with Hobbes last year after his departure from You’re Wrong About.)

➽ Speaking of You’re Wrong About, I was catching up on the show the other day and wanted to flag two recent installments: “Your Abortion Stories,” which saw the series marshalling the voices of its community in a rather Death, Sex & Money–like fashion (exhibiting a really compelling version of a possible future for the show in the process) and subscription-only bonus episode “A Tiny Concert, Just For You,” which saw host Sarah Marshall throwing some shine on Carolyn Kendrick — her producer and a talented musician.

➽ Marc Smerling and truth.media’s Crooked City barely wrapped up its first Youngstown, Ohio–pegged season when it released the show’s follow-up earlier this week, The Emerald Triangle. The sophomore effort revolves around journalist Sam Anderson’s tumble down the rabbit hole after learning that a high-school friend had been accused of murder in California. It’s a journey that brings him to the titular Emerald Triangle — a region of Northern California known for its prominence in the marijuana business. The season marks a fairly notable departure from the Crimetown-descendant feel of Crooked City’s first season, and there’s a reason for that: The Emerald Triangle was originally slated for release as a stand-alone feed but, ultimately, was folded into Crooked City. (Novel, studio of The Superhero Complex and Deliver Us From Ervil, is attached to the project.)

➽ There’s quite a bit of corporate drama currently taking place between Apple and Spotify over the latter’s attempt at mounting an audiobooks business — Is it really about audiobooks, though? — which may or may not resolve itself soon. In any case, keep an eye on what’s happening at the publisher level and especially on Pushkin Industries, which is making a go of being purveyor of audiobook-first products in addition to everything else it’s producing with the audio business. This month, the company released a project by Lake Bell, Inside Voice: My Obsession With How We Sound, and it will soon drop an audiobook containing the full, unabridged recordings of the January 6 hearing — a decent digital stocking stuffer for certain kinds of people in your life.

➽ For a number of reasons, I’m gonna end up watching Wakanda Forever pretty late (maybe in early December?), so I’ll settle for the official Marvel podcast on the flick, hosted by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the meantime.

Process the World Cup With These Podcasts