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Bridging the Cultural Divide Watching World Cup

tball (depending on your accent, you might be used to it being pronounced “soccer”) is awesome. Being in a football-loving country during the World Cup is even more awesome.

I have loosely followed the past few World Cups, watching games whenever I was around and there wasn’t anything better to do. This year, I was obsessed. Obsessed. I just couldn’t get enough. Luckily for me, everyone at Camino Seguro couldn’t get enough either. I’ve taken a greater and greater liking to football as the years go past, but it’s pretty easy to love it when you’re surrounded by 600 adoring fans.

Guatemalans love, LOVE, football. So, it was crucial to watch all of the important games. Since the games were during the day for us, breakfast and lunch were sometimes paired with football. You could forget about holding regular class on those days, as the games lasted well into class time. However, it was a great opportunity to build community in the class while doing informal activities based on the theme of football or chatting about the games while helping students with their homework.

The day the Mundial (World Cup) started, we were greeted by a spectacle in the comedor (lunchroom). On the front wall, two sheets were pinned, forming a screen where a map of the world had been. The front tables were moved to accommodate a table with a television and projector. The games were projected onto the screen, making the players appear life-sized.

An air of excitement was pervasive in the comedor. Expectant chatter filled the room. Who would win? What would Ronaldinho’s stats be? What crazy thing would Maradona say next? Could anyone beat the Germans?

The students and staff went wild during the games, especially as they increased in importance. The last game we watched in the project was the semifinal Spain-Germany game. Explosions of cheers and applause would erupt every time the Spaniards were on the move, shrieks of disappointment when they missed a shot. Of course, not every student was in to the games, but an overwhelming percentage of them were enraptured, particularly during the semifinal.

The morning of the final, I walked to the market across town to get a few provisions for a viewing party we were having at my house. The streets were teeming with people. A sea of red and orange extended in all directions. I exchanged a few sympathetic smiles with those who nostalgically donned Argentine gear. A very large number of Dutch people live in Antigua. A contingent even rented out an entire bar; orange clothing and a secret password were required for admission. The air was simply electric.

At noon, 20 people gathered in my house to watch the game. Despite our ample space, everyone packed together around the TV. I think we had about 10 people on the couch. Our friends in attendance represented Canada, the US, Guatemala, Sweden, England, Ireland, Denmark, Germany, France and Australia. It was amazing to be a part of such a far-flung group. Huddled around our TV, we all felt like one cozy family. I guess it didn’t hurt that 90% of us were cheering for Spain. ¡Que viva!

I don’t really understand why football hasn’t taken hold in the States as it has over the rest of the world. My friends and I have a few theories, both why it’s so popular elsewhere and why it hasn’t taken off in the States. I think that one reason why it’s so popular everywhere else is simply that it’s such a cheap and easy game to play. Really, all it requires is a ball and some open space. Open space is generally pretty easy to come by, especially in the developing world. Even without access to a regulation ball, one can easily be fashioned out of plastic bags or some other material. I think this, in particular, is why football is so popular in the developing world – all it takes is ingenuity and the volition to play. Football is the one thing that the US hasn’t dominated for the entirety of the past century, which makes it a lot more fun for everyone else.

In terms of why it hasn’t taken root in the States, maybe we just didn’t realize football and fútbol were two different games. But to be serious, I think part of it has to do with the fact that we’re already so saturated with sports, many of them uniquely our own. What we know as football, everyone else knows as American Football. The only other people I’ve met who watch this sport are Canadians. We like our sports to be full of action. If it’s a game that’s traditionally low-scoring, it better be full-contact (I’m looking at you, ice hockey).

Football has finally started to take root in the States in the past 10 years or so. Or, at least that’s my marker, as that is about the time my small Minnesota high school created a program. I’m really not sure what outside influences have caused this, but I’m sure immigration has contributed to its rise in popularity. To give credit where it’s due, the US women have been holding it down for a long time. But, I think it will take MLS being seen as one of the premier leagues in order to bring it up to the fan levels that other sports have in the US.

The thing that really gets me about football is not the game itself, although I do really enjoy watching the game. What I love so much about football is the power it has to bring people together. No matter what country you travel to, football can be found. I have personally witnessed games (of all ability levels) on five continents without even looking for it. It is one of the most surefire ways to make a quick and easy connection with someone. Even if you don’t root for the same team, I find that I’ve been able to gain a certain measure of respect and openness by just being able to chat about the game.

Football even helped me solidify my positive standing with my supervisor, Vinicio. He and I really connected over our mutual backing of Argentina to win it all. I felt so proud when he elected to sit next to me during one of the games. We’d never sat next to each other at lunch before, and it felt like the moment had finally come when I had become a part of the team, so to speak. During the Uruguay-Germany game, we commiserated across the comedor all game long, cheering when Uruguay made a goal or shrugging when they just missed the mark. I was in!

I feel lucky to have had the Mundial happen right away during my stay here as a vehicle for connecting with people. Football is an entry into people’s hearts and minds. Striking up a conversation about the beloved sport is an easy way in. I’ve always liked sports, although have always preferred the arts to sports. Traveling through developing countries has definitely increased my appreciation for sports as something accessible that everyone can be a part of. Sports not only help build essential life skills, but they also channel energy in a healthy and productive way. Sports have the potential for a tremendous amount of positive impact, from simple things like living a healthy lifestyle to complex things like bridging cultural divides.

This week, I saw peace in football.

More about Shannon Malone…