On Semester at Sea, my friends and I were given the rare opportunity to briefly sample a number of different countries around the world in a very short period of time. Although we sacrificed the ability to really immerse ourselves into any one culture, we were able to make surface level observations in a startling variety of countries, ecosystems, and cultures. By traveling with a lot of the same people in these different countries, I started getting interested in and noticing things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, things that my friends were interested in. One of the coolest things that I started noticing in the different countries we visited was the apparently universal love of soccer. My friend Michael Collett loves the sport, and would never miss an opportunity to play with people when he got the chance. Although initially uninterested,* I quickly started noticing that soccer was everywhere, no matter where we went. The language of soccer had no barriers, at least not that I could see. If they both spoke English or Spanish, then Michael could talk to them about their favorite teams or players, and inexplicably everybody seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. If they didn’t speak English, then they would just play. Here are just some of my favorite pictures of soccer from around the world.
The first time I really started getting the opportunity to see people playing soccer was in Vietnam, and then it was only very briefly, as we quickly drove by in a bus. This was one of the first times that my attention had been grabbed by the sport, as there hadn’t many chances before that to see anyone play.
By the time we reached Myanmar, I had heard Michael talk about the sport a lot in the month and a half that I had known him, and even though I didn’t understand who or what he was talking about most of the time, I listened politely (he had to suffer far worse whenever someone brought up the topic of dinosaurs, so I really owed it to him).
In Ngwe Saung, Myanmar, we visited a school for a morning,** which was where I really started to pay attention to the apparently universal appeal of soccer. When we arrived at the school, a number of the kids were playing soccer, and several Semester at Sea students promptly joined them. Even after the full game had wrapped up, there were still a number of people that had broken off and were juggling the ball between them in smaller groups.
I didn’t really see much more soccer until we got to South Africa. On the very first day, Michael had I had a great view of Cape Town Stadium, which was constructed for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
In Ghana, my friends and I visited Kokrobite Beach near Accra, Ghana. It didn’t take more than five minutes after Michael pulled a soccer ball out of his bag for an impromptu game to get started. The game had died off by the time I had come back from exploring, so I just kicked the ball around with one of the kids who was playing nearby. Five minutes later, people from all over the beach had appeared to play in another game!
Morocco was our next stop, and soccer was everywhere (or was I just paying better attention now?) I spent the first day in Casablanca with Michael and a few other friends, where we watched a group playing soccer for half an hour, and Michael wound up playing with a different group in front of the Hassan II Mosque for awhile as well! It was cool being able to see an apparently more organized game, and then a seemingly impromptu game being played a short time later.
After our day in Casablanca, my friends and I had an eleven hour bus ride (each way) from Casablanca to the Sahara Desert for our camel trek, which meant that there was a lot of time for just looking out the window. It seemed like every town that we drove through had at least one or two soccer fields, many of which were in use as we passed by them!
It came as no surprise to me that soccer was everywhere in England. One of the most obvious reminders of this was in the neighborhood surrounding Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal Football Club. The stadium itself was cool enough to see, but the surrounding neighborhood clearly was full of fans and supporters. Many of the shops were in some way related to Arsenal, with pictures, paintings, murals, or lunch specials to draw people in.
Even outside of the Arsenal neighborhood, soccer was everywhere. I saw several fields in both London and Dublin that were fenced in like this, but many of them were nowhere near as slick as this. It was definitely a surprise, coming straight from Morocco, to see people playing on grass or turf fields, instead of sand and rock.
Nothing else that I saw on Semester at Sea really seemed to have the power to draw people together more than soccer. Rarely were people unfriendly to us, but nothing seemed to spark up a lively conversation faster than the topic of soccer. Even just pulling a soccer ball out of your bag somehow drew people from all over the area to play a game. The apparently universal of soccer seems unmatched by any other sport, more than any movie, book, or religion. The sense of camaraderie it produced was a fantastic thing to be able to see around the world.
*My previous dislike of the game probably stemmed from my innate feat of getting hit in the face by the ball, a relic of my abysmal sports performances in Elementary School and the fact that my glasses seemed to magnetically attract objects that were thrown in my general direction.
**An experience which, rest assured, I still have very mixed feelings about, given the heated controversy surrounding voluntourism. Why did we even go, and what good did we do there? I taught some of the kids how to act like a dinosaur, but that can’t possibly have done more good than harm.