The World's Game
One of the best ways that I have found to connect with people when traveling or living abroad is to plug into the local soccer culture. (Terminology note: In most of the world, they call this sport “football,” a term that invokes a very different game in the United States. For this post, I’ll generally use “soccer” to avoid confusion, and hope that the European football purists will forgive me.)
I have played and watched “the beautiful game” since the late 1970s. I was a middling soccer player at my Catholic grade school, plying my trade as a goalkeeper and midfielder for St. Joseph’s on the dirt fields of Seattle (Catholic Youth Organization city champs in 1979, 1980, and 1982!). I attended Seattle Sounders games in the old Kingdome and watched them on TV (two NASL Soccer Bowl appearances but no trophies). But I confess that for most of my life I was a typical American, with no understanding of just how soccer-mad the rest of the world was. (It didn’t help that the USA didn’t even qualify for the World Cup until I was in college.)
Still, I’ve always felt a strong connection with the game, even as other American sports (including, of course, American football) captured the majority of my time and money as a sports fan. I returned to St. Joseph’s as a coach for my little brother’s teams in the early 1990s (a few playoff appearances, but no titles). I got a couple of coaching books and began to be exposed to rudimentary tactics (and discovered to my chagrin that it’s very hard to get 10-year-olds to understand spacing, movement off the ball, or the value of a backward pass).
I even resumed my playing career during these years, joining a friend’s workplace rec-league team and later forming a work team of my own (I think our team name had something to do with Microsoft temp worker labels). During those years I experienced the physical joy of a well-placed pass or successful tackle (the kind you do mostly with the feet), and perhaps the euphoria of scoring a goal on rare occasions. Soccer is a game that anyone can play, and billions do every year around the world. (For more on the joys of pick-up soccer, see my Medium post here.)
USA Joins the Party
It helped that the USA was getting better at this game — with the benefit of automatic qualification for 1994 World Cup as the host country. Although I didn’t attend any matches (a missed opportunity), I closely followed for the first time this competition that transfixes much of the world every four years. (There’s another one coming up in a few months, hosted by Qatar, and the USA will be there after tragically missing out in 2018.) By the time of the 2002 World Cup, I was hooked, staying up all night to watch the U.S. matches — that WC was held in Japan and Korea — as the squad made a surprise run to the quarterfinals before falling to the powerful Germans (p.s.: we were robbed).
I should note here that the previous paragraph was referring to the U.S. men’s national team, which has always been a minor player on the world stage. This contrasts sharply with the U.S. women’s team, which has been an absolute powerhouse from the early days of women’s international play. (Journalism aside: as a Stanford Daily sports columnist I once interviewed and wrote a feature story about a star Cardinal player named Julie Foudy, who would go on to captain the U.S. national team in the 1990s and early 2000s. Foudy was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007.)
The American team won the first-ever Women’s World Cup in 1991 (sadly, I wasn’t watching). But it was 1999 that really launched the team. Led by superstars like Foudy, Mia Hamm, and Kristine Lilly, “the ‘99ers” captivated the entire country. The final match versus China in the Rose Bowl drew more than 90,000 fans and a TV audience that surpassed 40 million (I was one). That tense match was immortalized when it went to penalty kicks and, after goalkeeper Briana Scurry saved the fifth Chinese attempt, U.S. defender Brandi Chastain won it with a decisive blast and then ripped off her jersey in front of the delirious crowd. (I remain a huge fan of the No. 1-ranked USWNT, which in recent years has prominently featured Megan Rapinoe, a pink-haired, politically outspoken superstar who lives in Seattle and plays professionally for the local women’s pro team OL Reign.)
But during these years, my soccer fandom was pretty much limited to the month-long World Cup competitions every few years, along with watching/coaching my two kids (in Seattle, EVERY kid plays youth soccer — it’s the law ;-). I remained totally unaware of the huge professional game that captivates much of the rest of the globe. (It didn’t help that the Sounders were a “minor league” club during these years; they weren’t elevated to top-flight status until finally joining Major League Soccer in 2009. It was a criminal oversight on the part of MLS executives in my mind, as Seattle was and is a big soccer town with an extremely loyal fanbase that dates back to the Sounders’ early NASL days.)
London Soccer Fail
An anecdote that highlights just how ignorant I was of world professional soccer during this time: On my first-ever trip to England in February 2001, I wanted to do a little “soccer tourism.” The only thing I’d ever heard of regarding English soccer was Wembley Stadium, which was the national stadium and the site of the World Cup final in 1966 (STILL the only World Cup that England has ever won, even though the Brits literally invented the game). The problem in 2001 was that the old Wembley had been closed down a year before, and the replacement had yet to be built. No matter, I thought blithely — I’ll just go check out the closed building and the surrounding area. There would at least be a good bar-and-shopping scene there. Right?
So I spent most of one precious day in London taking the train to the suburbs (where Wembley is located), only to find the crumbling edifice fenced off and the area around it deserted and depressing. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me (this is really inexcusable — did I do ZERO RESEARCH?), the English Premier League was in full swing. Now and then, the EPL is the top professional football (yes, let's use the proper term) league in the world, featuring dozens of international stars who lead their World Cup squads. Why, the city of London alone is home to 5 or 6 of the most iconic clubs in world football (Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham, to name a few). Somehow, I had never heard of this league or any of these clubs (here I could blame the American media’s absolute failure to cover this or any other foreign soccer league at the time, but I won’t). Reader, forgive me.
Let’s skip ahead, as I did very little foreign travel (no, Canada doesn’t count) from 2001 to 2015. The latter year I jetted to visit my daughter, who was traveling and working in Southeast Asia. I bought a few jerseys during the trip (the Thai national team being one) and played pick-up soccer in Laos with some little kids, but there wasn’t much soccer on the trip. By this point, however, the Sounders were becoming a pretty big deal. I attended lots of matches with friends, and was watching in a packed bar when they won their first MLS Cup championship in 2016—this time it was Roman Torres with the Chastain-like winning PK to clinch the title.
It was also around this time that I became more aware of the international professional game. Full credit goes to my cousin Mark, who somehow (despite lesser credentials as a soccer player or coach than I) had become totally enamored with the famed British club Chelsea by watching their matches on Saturdays at tiny Seattle soccer bar called The Dray (we later held part of his bachelor party there). He began talking about his obsession with me, and even dragged me along one time to a bar to watch something called the European Champions League. I still didn’t really understand it, but began idly following Chelsea just to humor him.
I also began to read more widely about this fascinating game. Books like How Soccer Explains the World, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Soccernomics, and The Club (about the rise of the EPL) helped deepen my understanding of the game and the globe's fascination with it.
El Fútbol en Costa Rica
Then, in late 2018, sick of dreary Seattle winters and the same old sports-and-life routine (will the Mariners EVER make the playoffs?), I got a wild hair and moved to San José, Costa Rica, to teach English. In an amazing coincidence, my new job was across the street from Costa Rica’s national stadium, home of Los Ticos (the nickname for the country’s quite competitive national soccer squad). I quickly noticed that soccer (OK, fútbol) in Costa Rica is a BIG DEAL. Any time the national team is in action (home or away), people wear their jerseys and fill the bars to watch the match. Locals also closely follow the biggest teams in Europe (as I’ve learned people do in Africa, Asia, and just about everywhere else), and there’s a very popular Costa Rican professional league too.
In my first few days in San José, I visited a soccer shop and contemplated which local team I should adopt. I noticed a lot of purple shirts on display, and since my favorite college team (go Huskies) wears a somewhat similar shade, I bought the jersey of Saprissa. I was assured that not only was this club based locally in San José, but they were also “the best” and I couldn’t go wrong.
However, when I got the shirt home, I didn’t like the way it fit. So I went back to the shop (the young clerk was so friendly that I got his number so he could perhaps join me for a local match at some point). This time I was drawn to the red-and-black of Liga Deportiva Alajuelense, also known as “La Liga” (or simply LDA). A few days later, I found myself in a sketchy local bar in a strange neighborhood, watching my new club lose agonizingly in the playoffs — something I soon learned was a relatively common occurrence. (Read more about my La Liga fandom in this Medium post.)
I took a lot of Ubers during my nearly two years of living and working in Costa Rica, and soon developed the habit of practicing my Spanish by talking soccer with the drivers (“¿Cuál es tu equipo de fútbol?”). Just about every one had a response for me. It was also fun to talk soccer with my students, who were mostly Saprissa fans and would inevitably give me a very hard time for my choice of club. It’s amazing how people open up and smile when talking about their affinity for their favorite sports team — and the fact that someone who hails from a country thousands of miles away follows their local teams creates an instant bond.
One of my colleagues, Edgar, became a good friend, and one of the reasons was our shared appreciation of the “beautiful game.” He’s a big supporter of the Cartaginés club from the nearby city of Cartago, a team which I quickly learned was like the Chicago Cubs of Costa Rica, because they hadn’t won a league title since before World War II. (Terminology note: If you are a true world football nut, you should use the term “supporter” rather than “fan”; similarly, it’s “match” not “game” and “draw” rather than “tie.”) His devotion to these “lovable losers” was impressive, as was his ability to bring up the team in just about every conversation. :-)
When La Liga played Cartaginés that spring, Edgar offered to accompany me to a match at LDA’s home stadium, and the outing remains one of the highlights of my 20 months in Pura Vida country. (I also attended several matches at the national stadium, including a “friendly” between Costa Rica and Jamaica. I once even met some vacationing Seattleites at a match in the pouring rain there.)
[Editor’s Note: In 2022, Cartago finally won the Costa Rican championship in dramatic fashion over my own La Liga, setting off wild celebrations in his hometown. I don’t know exactly how Edgar is going to re-orient his life philosophy, or what he’ll complain about now with his students, but I was very happy for him. As a lifelong Mariners fan, I too know the agony of a seemingly endless championship drought.]
Pablo, my boss at the English school where I taught, was also a huge sports fanatic, especially of world football. I can fondly recall happy afternoons between classes spent watching illegal streams of European Champions League matches on one of the classroom TVs. (In the process I became quite a fan of this exciting competition, especially after watching this incredible comeback one afternoon.) Another fond memory was racing after a Saturday class to a local sports bar to watch the 2019 Champions League final with my colleagues and their friends (Liverpool edged Tottenham, further demonstrating the EPL's world dominance).
Of course, I didn’t lose touch with my Sounders, watching many games online and viewing their second MLS title win in a San José casino (it hurt to miss attending that one, as it took place in Seattle and multiple friends offered me a ticket). During this time I even launched a (very occasional) soccer podcast called Behold! Football with Mark and another Northwest buddy named Ken. Part of the inspiration for this project was an England trip those two pulled off without me in February 2019, which Mark instigated to see his beloved Chelsea play in person. A few months later, Chelsea signed perhaps this generation's best young American player, Christian Pulisic, and I instantly became even more interested in the Blues and the EPL.
Finally, there was the 2019 Women’s World Cup, held in June in France. I wasn’t going to miss watching this one; not only was the USA the defending champion and favored to win, but Rapinoe was one of the undisputed stars of the squad. (Her Twitter spat with Donald Trump that erupted right before the tournament — after a magazine quoted her as saying that if her team won, she “wasn’t going to the f**king White House” — just added to the fun and interest.)
I found a local bar/restaurant where I could watch all the games, which were broadcast in mid-day (one time I frantically had to find another teacher to cover for me when I was scheduled for an afternoon class smack in the middle of the big USA-France match-up). Rapinoe and the U.S. swept through the tournament with a series of thrilling wins over powerful rivals like the French and English teams. On the weekend of the final, I found myself on a “border run” trip with another teaching buddy to renew my visa (poor planning on my part). And so it was bright and early on Sunday morning that Le-Anne and I found ourselves walking the streets of this small Nicaraguan tourist town, desperately searching for a place showing the match… when suddenly I heard the roar of the crowd coming from a tiny bar I’d previously not noticed. We happily entered and watched the U.S. beat the Netherlands to win their fourth World Cup title, as I made friends with everyone in the establishment. Nothing like a big soccer match in a bar in a foreign country to forge instant comradeship.
Meanwhile, Back in Seattle…
After leaving my teaching job and moving back to Seattle in late 2020, I continued to watch and go to Sounders matches, highlighted by the time this spring when we became the first MLS club to win the CONCACAF Champions League, a truly memorable night. I finally made it to see Megan Rapinoe play for the OL Reign, Seattle’s entry into the booming National Women’s Soccer League (many playoff appearances but no titles).
I also viewed a ton of Chelsea matches on TV, both EPL and Champions League (somehow I now found myself subscribing to a special streaming channel just to watch Euro Champions League matches — you see how the mania grows?). Amazingly, Chelsea actually won their second European title in 2021, with Mark driving up from Portland to watch the final with me and Ken (alas, no podcast episodes about this— yet).
Somehow, without quite realizing it, soccer had gone (in the space of about 5 or 6 years) from an occasional diversion from my “main sports” fandom to an obsession (like it is in most of the rest of the world). But my soccer resumé remained incomplete. I needed to journey to the place where the sport matters most: Europe. But in 2021, worldwide pandemic, mom with health issues, yadda yadda yadda… I couldn’t make it happen.
Return to Europe
Finally, we come to this year and the two European trips I was finally fortunate enough to take. In May, I flew to visit my high school buddy Mike and his wife at their home in Madrid (lucky guy). I specifically timed my flights so we’d be able to catch one of the world’s biggest soccer teams in action. His chosen club, Atlético Madrid, was out of town that weekend, but Real Madrid was playing a league match at their legendary stadium (the Bernabéu). Real Madrid is perhaps the most famous and successful soccer club in the world — they have won a jaw-dropping 14 European Champions Leagues titles (probably the hardest professional competition to win, since Europe is home to nearly all of the world’s top clubs). I didn’t really care who we saw play — I was just excited to attend my first big match in Europe!
Mike purchased tickets online early in the week, and we were all set to attend the match on Sunday, the day before I would fly back to Seattle. Imagine our disappointment when we learned, while traveling through southern Spain, that the match had actually been moved up two days (probably to give Real Madrid a few more days of rest before they played in that year’s Champions League final, a match that they would win). There we sat eating dinner on the coast while the game kicked off 650 kilometers away in Madrid without us. Ay, caramba!
Still, I had one other chance: A long-delayed trip to visit my daughter Kayla in Germany, followed by a swing south to see Le-Anne, who had moved on to Italy. It was finally time to see a big European match in person! Kayla lives and works in Potsdam, a city about 25 minutes by car from Berlin. I looked up the local Bundesliga teams (as the top German league is known) and found that Hertha Berlin was playing a home match the weekend I would be visiting against top team Bayer Leverkusen. As a bonus, the game would take place in the same stadium where they held the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (known for the triumphs of American sprinter Jesse Owens). How very cool.
I easily bought affordable tickets online and off we went (we even ended up bringing along the two boys that Kayla nannies for, who had never been to a soccer match). It was everything I had expected — singing and chanting crowds, world-class players, an exciting battle (it ended up a 2–2 draw), and (after Ken insisted via text message) currywurst for everyone. (It’s basically cut up hot dogs with some curry powder thrown on.) Life goal achieved!
I wish I could say I had the same luck in Italy, but my travel schedule and budget didn’t allow for an in-person match experience there. I wasn’t prepared to pay 220 euros for a ticket to watch AC Milan take on Napoli in a regular-season Serie A contest. However, it was almost as much fun to watch the two teams battle from a local soccer pub in Milan with Le-Anne and her adult daughter. (Sarah happens to be a pretty big football fan herself; she lives in Milan but has become a supporter of third-division Catanzaro in southern Italy. The unique culture surrounding lower-division clubs, perhaps made most famous in the U.S. through the Netflix series Sunderland 'Til I Die, should be the subject of a whole different post.) Milan lost the match, but it was a close contest — everyone in the packed pub was silent and riveted the entire time. Soccer in Europe can be as serious as a heart attack; it’s often compared with religion, and the devotion of the fans is something special to witness.
I did use some of the money I saved on an AC Milan scarf, which will go in my growing collection. The next day I had some time to kill in the morning, so I took the train to visit the Mondo Milan team museum, which was quite impressive. (It was the only museum I visited in Milan.) There I learned (in deep detail and with accompanying videos and displays) that AC Milan has a 120-year history, and a record of European success nearly as impressive as Real Madrid. I also like the team colors (the same as La Liga), so it appears I made solid choice of Italian club.
Future (Soccer) Tripping
So now, in addition to my beloved hometown Sounders and Reign, I can claim at least some affiliation with (if not true, lifelong fandom of) England’s Chelsea, Costa Rica’s LDA, Germany’s Hertha Berlin, and Italy’s AC Milan. (I’ll also root for Mike’s Atlético Madrid, and plan to get to a match with him one day in person.) I have never been to France, home of the defending World Cup champs. I need to go to Stamford Bridge and watch Chelsea play, hopefully with Mark, someday as well.
More immediately, there’s the 2022 men’s World Cup that kicks off in late November, featuring a young but very talented U.S. squad that will try to do some damage against world powers like Brazil, Germany, France, and England (we play the latter in our second game). Maybe one of these years the USA will actually threaten to win the thing — it’s not impossible (even though it sometimes seems like it). We're even co-hosting the competition — along with Mexico and Canada — in 2026, and Seattle is going to be one of the host cities. With any luck, I'll finally get to witness a World Cup match in person!
[Note: One mark of excellence for this version of the USMNT is that many of the top players now ply their professional trade in Europe, which is the gold standard. Look for Pulisic to score some big goals for his country and the USA to at least make it to the knockout rounds (no jinx, no jinx!).]
The MLS is also getting bigger and better every year, as new teams are added and the crowds and media attention grow. Teenagers in Seattle have never known a time when the Sounders weren’t making the MLS playoffs each season and drawing huge crowds to the same stadium where the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks play.
Fans can also watch the top professional leagues in the world regularly, as NBC now carries EPL matches live every weekend all season long and you can see the Bundesliga and Serie A games on ESPN’s streaming service. It’s a great time to be a soccer fan in the USA, as well as everywhere else. (There are definitely structural problems within the sport, especially the corruption that is rampant in world governing body FIFA, but that’s inevitable wherever huge money is involved. I care, but I don’t let it ruin the game for me.)
I guess in essence what I'm saying is: There’s so much more world to explore, and so much soccer to watch there. I can’t wait for my next trip!