As far as I know, there’s only one universal language. It’s spoken in the world’s biggest cities and its smallest towns. It can be a child’s first language, an old man’s last. It has the power to bring peace and incite violence. And no, Helen of Troy, that language ain’t love—and it ain’t lust either.
The universal language I’m talking about has a hundred different names. Soccer. The beautiful game. O jogo bonito. Football. Futbol. Futebol. тахианы.*
The Beautiful Game:
Soccer’s is a physical vocabulary. Silver-tongued players puzzle letters into words; conversational coaches shuffle words into sentences. It’s a language dictated by a grammar of finesse and fitness, desire and composure; a language punctuated by sound — the thwack of leather, crunch of bodies, ring of a goal post, swish of a net. Bellows of anguish, cries of triumph.
Wherever you are from, wherever you are, you’ll find others who speak this language, too. No need for Rosetta Stone, pocket dictionaries, private tutoring. The barrier to entry is curb high: a ball and a body—that’s all it takes.
Everyone who speaks this language does so differently. Styles of play vary like accents, shaped by those who taught us. And despite this language’s omnipresence, fluency is rare. I myself am literate, nothing more.
The beauty of this language — its intricate idiosyncrasies, its undeniable accessibility —is the reason for its universality. And today, that universality only makes it more beautiful.
A Summer of International Soccer:
Traveling in Spain, I can’t escape soccer—even if I wanted to. I hear it on street corners, in parks, broadcasted over taxi cab radios, blaring from screens in restaurants.
On both sides of the Atlantic, international soccer is buzzing. Back home in the United States, you have Copa America, an international tournament that pits countries from Canada to Argentina against one another. Thanks to solid play and an upset by the Costa Ricans, the United States made it out of the first stage and into the knockout round, beating out a tough group (Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay). Then, they eked out a win over Ecuador. Next up? Messi and Argentina in the semi-finals. A tough match to be sure, but this showing has already been an enormous accomplishment for the United States Men’s National Soccer Team. A salute from Spain.
In France, a country away from where I am now, the 2016 Euro Cup is underway. The Euro is arguably the second most important international soccer tournament — after the World Cup, of course. Aside from lacking a few dangerous South American squads (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, etc.), the best teams in the world compete in this storied competition, from current champion Spain to contenders like Germany, Portugal, France, Italy, Belgium and more.
Watching the 2016 Euro Cup in Spain:
Flags hang from balconies. Locals and tourists alike rock jerseys stitched with the names of Ibrahimovic, Ramos, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Muller. Children kick mini soccer balls plastered with Euro 2016 logos. Irish pubs rumble and erupt like volcanoes who traded lava for truckloads of Guinness.
There’s no better welcome mat at a bar than the roar of soccer fans.
My brother and I have been watching at least one game every day. We pick restaurants based not on Yelp reviews, but on whether or not they have the game on. Being from the United States, we have no perro in this fight, so naturally we root for underdogs. We raise our drinks to other spectators, curse the referees in our respective tongues, and applaud goals regardless of who scored them.
We watch for the love of the language.
In an international city like Barcelona, you’ll hear Catalan, Spanish, French, German and a thousand other dialects by the time you wander the length of Las Ramblas. Soccer, a simple language, is understood by all. No, you can’t order food with it, or ask directions, or barter in the market. But you can make friends—something a few words of Spanish might not do (especially if all you know how to say is “hola,” “cerveza,” and “baño.”)
Snapshot from a Spanish Plaza:
A 10-year-old soccer player stands in a tiled plaza, ball unmoving at his feet. He looks at my brother, Gabe, who calls for the ball in his broken brand of Mexicali Spanglish. Gabe has long blond dreads, and they swing like fraying tentacles of a Rastafarian octopus. Hesitant, unsure of what to think or do, the youngster passes my brother the ball, who flicks it up with his foot, juggles it between his feet and arcs it over his head before swooping his shoulders low, diving like a cormorant after its supper, and catching it in the crook of his neck. He then pops the ball back up, knocks it back to the boy, and walks away.
The kid claps his hands to his cheeks, a motion I’ve only seen cartoon characters make. A caricature of emotion. The “my mind is fuckin’ blown!” emoji. Us being obvious foreigners, out of place like bathrobes at a funeral, the boy didn’t expect Gabe to speak his language.
Gabe’s Spanish might only be at a grade school level, but his grasp of futbol is closer to grad school. Wherever we go, Gabe introduces himself to soccer players hastily in Spanish, or English, or fumbled sign language. The gist always being: “Is it ok if I play with you?”
They size him up, nod, and then the dialogue — that improvised conversation, that flow of footwork — takes over.
Juggling Across the Globe:
I’ve had conversations like this from German cities to Salvadoran jungles, Chilean barrios to Belizean beaches. I’ve even had them in the United States, though at home soccer never seems as important a language, partially because:
- a) soccer is not as integral to our national identity, and
- b) we’re not travelers in a foreign land.
At home, I don’t rely, at least to the same extent, on the language of soccer to make friends or experience culture. When I’m traveling, however, soccer is a language I’m always quick to speak. A tour guide might be able to tell me how old the plaza is, who built it, and why, but I know I’ll learn and remember more about that plaza from the hollering kids chasing a ball across its cobblestones.
*That last word actually means “chicken” in Mongol. Just trying to keep you on your toes.
** Addendum: the past week, we’ve been mountain biking in Basque Country. It’s been awesome. More to come on that later. We joined up with a ragtag crew of Scottish, English, German and Spanish riders, and we mistakenly assumed that they’d want to watch the soccer games and that we Americans would be the least invested party (it’s called the Euro Cup, after all). But no one really gave a shit. Which was fine. Still, the irony set in as we realized how little these Europeans cared about soccer right after I wrote this.
Obviously, this addendum does annihilate my pretty thesis. Oh well. Maybe no language is universal. Maybe everyone doesn’t speak the language of soccer. But, on the road and far from home, I’ve found that sparking up a conversation is always worth a shot.