Opinion: Leaving the country? Learn to speak football first


As fans around the globe cheer on their World Cup teams, Lonely Planet editor (and lifelong loather of football) Helen Elfer recalls how often the beautiful game has helped her while travelling.

Stick one of these shirts on to make instant football buddies. Image by Duncan Hull / CC BY 2.0

I can’t stand football. I hate the statistics-swapping sessions that are supposed to pass for conversation every summer. Hate sitting in pubs listening to the bellowed strings of vowels (‘A-woooooo—uuhhhhhh—ayyyyy’) that last for 90 looong minutes whenever there’s a match on. I could go on.

But as soon as I touch down in a country where I don’t speak the language, it’s a whole different ball-game (so to speak). I am THE world’s number one fan. Because if there’s one lesson I’ve learned over a lifetime of travelling — if you don’t speak the local lingo, you’ve got to speak football.

I was in Iraqi Kurdistan a few weeks ago, at a tiny, chaotic market which had a waterfall running right through it. Kids scrambled over the wet rocks. Women delicately stepped over puddles, careful not to soak the hems of their abayas. Dads stood right in the waterfall’s flow, trousers rolled up to the their calves, holding babies up for photos. The majority of tourists here were Arab Iraqis, many of who would have made an exhausting full day’s drive from Baghdad, just to come here and give themselves a few hours’ respite from the hardships of the city.

I was thinking about how our lives couldn’t be more different when a family walked by, with a kid wearing the Barcelona kit. As he passed our group, we saw ‘Messi’ emblazoned on his back. ‘Messi!’ yelled my friend. The kid spun round, beaming with excitement. ‘Messi!’ he squealed back. His family gathered round, his dad giving everyone the thumbs up. Hands were shaken, backs were slapped. None of us spoke a lick of Arabic, they didn’t speak any English, but five minutes later we all parted like old friends.

A few years ago it was Beckham that broke the ice for me, at a ramshackle toddy shack in the Indian countryside. The place was full of elderly Keralan gents taking a break from the hot sun and I felt not unwelcome, but out of place – until I spotted a very faded poster of Golden Balls himself. He was aged about 19, squinting out from under his springy blond fringe and had pride of place among paintings of Hindu gods and orange marigold flower strings. ‘Beckham,’ I said to the store owner, pointing at the picture. Everyone looked up, nodding and grinning and before I knew it, my water bottle was filled with toddy and somebody was offering me a spoonful of his tapioca lunch.

I could name countless more occasions when just saying a footballer’s name has helped me out on my travels – Ryan Giggs broke up a long coach journey in China, naming all the Man …read more


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