I left a comment on a friend’s Facebook page a while ago, on a post he made about basketball players being the world’s best athletes.
I commented, “All that fancy stuff basketball players do, soccer players do with their feet.”
His reply: “Why do you hate America?”
Perhaps I should point out that I don’t live in the United States anymore. My wife and I left in the summer of 2010 for an extended jaunt. Except for semiannual visits to see family in Minnesota and Iowa, we live on the road.
We’ve visited more than 50 countries since 2010. And we’ve discovered that if you want to make conversation with any citizen of any country, you’ll find an instant friend if you can say a few things about the world’s game.
My first brush with international soccer came in 1975, long before I ever saw an actual game. I was in London studying theater and living in a little residential hotel with a breakfast room that doubled as a sleepy evening bar.
There was one particular Saturday, however, when the bar came alive. More than 250,000 Scots descended upon London for a World Cup qualifying match between England and Scotland.
As I said, I knew nothing about soccer then. But the bar was full of Scots. They insisted on buying rounds of whiskey and telling me all about it. It was serious talk, especially concerning their rivalry with the hated English.
The game didn’t go so well for the Scots. England won 5-0, which was not an unexpected result. But the Scots didn’t let that dampen their spirits. All night you could hear boozy, kilt-clad choruses of “They only got five” on London streets.
That night I returned to the hotel bar after attending a play. I ordered a whiskey and was told there was none. Nor was there any beer.
“The Scots drank it all,” the bartender said.
I couldn’t spend much time in England without soccer rubbing off on me a little. When I returned to the U.S. later that year I became a fan of the Minnesota Kicks.
This was a team that mostly featured over-the-hill (or never-were) English players. Nevertheless, for a novice fan, it was a novel game, and the Kicks normally drew more than 20,000 happy fans to their games at the Met.
There were some great players in the North American Soccer League. I got to see one of Pele’s fabled over-the-head bicycle shot at the Met in the late ’70s. Unfortunately, he smacked it off the crossbar, so I can’t say I saw Pele score a goal. But when I tell international soccer fans I saw him play, they’re still impressed.
When I moved to Barcelona in the late ’70s, I found myself living in one of the world’s most fervent soccer cities. FC Barcelona featured the greatest player of the time — the Dutchman Johan Cruyff, who passed away earlier this year. I went to a few games here and there, and got to see Cruyff score more than one goal.
Now I do business with a Dutch company. And when I tell my new young Dutch friends that I saw Cruyff play, they think that’s pretty amazing. They also think I’m really old.
I usually try to catch a soccer match if I’m staying in any foreign country for any length of time. I go for the best games I can find. I’ve seen first-division games in Holland, England, Italy and Spain. I went to a World Cup match in Madrid in 1982 and sat just ahead of Henry Kissinger.
But one of my favorite memories is going to a second-division game in Cusco, Peru, in 2010. Our son and daughter came to meet my wife and me to tour Machu Picchu. We saw the stadium on our way into town and decided to take in a match.
It was an important game for the Cusco club. The lines into the small, rickety stadium were long and chaotic.
When we finally pushed through the gates, we learned that our seat assignments were a joke. Nobody was sitting where they were supposed to. We found people sitting in our seats and they wouldn’t move.
It hardly mattered. Nobody could sit anyway because the club had oversold the stadium by about 50 percent.
So, after a lot of pushing and bumping, I looked around and saw that my daughter was no longer with us. I wasn’t worried at first. She speaks fluent Spanish and can handle herself.
Nevertheless, I started to wonder after a while. Then I got a text from her.
“Turn around and look up,” it said.
So I did. I scanned the crowd behind me and didn’t see her.
Another text. “Look higher.”
And when I did, I saw her waving out the window of the owner’s box.
I fought my way up the aisle to the door of the box and she met me there. “How did you get in here?” I asked.
She said, “Dad, this is Señor Diaz, and he’s the owner of the team. He invited us to join him because I told him we were soccer fans from the United States.”
He said he’d never met a soccer fan from the United States before. He was happy to make our acquaintance.
Like I said, if you can talk soccer, you can make friends anywhere.
Tom Bartel and his wife, Kristin Henning, are the former owners and publishers of City Pages, Minnesota Parent Magazine and the Rake Magazine. They have been on the road more or less nonstop since 2010, and blog about their travels at www.travelpast50.com. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest at @travelpast50.
ABOUT 10,000 Takes: 10,000 Takes is a new digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.