Soccer: The Universal Language

Author’s Note: This column appears in the January 26 issue of The Villanovan.

Last month, I was lucky enough to head down to El Salvador for a week and a half with Villanova’s Service Break Experience program. I say that I was lucky for a handful of reasons, not the least of which was the sheer amount of knowledge that I gained during my time abroad. I learned about the life and death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the horrific events of the recent Civil War and about the lives of those whom I was serving.

But this column is in the sports section, so what am I getting at here? Some background: in the words of Ron Burgundy, I don’t speak Spanish. Well, that’s not totally accurate. I can butcher my way through the most basic of basic conversations, and that’s about it. For example, the following conversation happened about 15 times in El Salvador:

Me: Hola! Cómo te llamas? (It took me about 12 minutes on Google Translator to finally get this conversation spelled correctly)

Child: says name

Me: Me llamo Juan! Cuantos años tienes?

Child: says age

The two of us: Silent grins, waiting for the other to make the next move.

The next move would often involve me pointing at a game that was nearby, or holding up crayons that were mercifully placed next to us when we got to our worksite. Needless to say, it was a struggle to communicate. As someone who talks more than I should, being limited in this way was a daunting task from the onset.

But as we drove through the streets of San Salvador, I noticed something familiar: sports team advertisements could be found on every corner. Where at home I would expect to see Red Sox banners and Bruins flags, in El Salvador they were replaced with two teams: Barcelona and Real Madrid. The two titans of Spanish (and world) soccer have a monopoly on the sporting scene in El Salvador unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed.

I am a relatively new soccer-phile, but I have done my best to immerse myself in soccer culture over the last few years. I became addicted during the 2010 World Cup, and haven’t stopped since. A newly minted fan of Chelsea FC, I find myself struggling with the fact that I have only recently latched on to a team with generations of history, to most of which I am ignorant. Does this make me a bandwagon fan? Perhaps, but I’m going to stick with it until the uneasiness fades.

I like to think I’m making strides toward true soccer fandom. I have no problem getting up at 8 a.m. to watch the Blues play a cellar-dweller if it means that it’s the only chance I’ll get all week to see them play. I spent Christmas cash on a second Chelsea jersey, this one a 15-year old throwback with “Coors” emblazoned across the chest. Win-win.

So, equipped with a decent amount of soccer knowledge, I made a small addendum to my Spanish 101 conversations with the local children. Saying something along the lines of “Do you like soccer?” usually resulted in an enthusiastic head nod, so I followed up with “Barcelona or Madrid?”

Despite neither team employing a Salvadoran player, nearly everyone I talked to had an opinion about players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. I am partial to Barcelona over Madrid, and the same holds true for their two star players, Messi and Ronaldo. When a new friend would admit to being a fan of Barcelona, I would celebrate in a ridiculously over-the-top fashion, which usually resulted in laughter and a high-five. But when someone revealed that they cheered for Madrid, I feigned disgust, especially towards pretty-boy Ronaldo. Regardless of for whom each person cheered, everyone appreciated my spot-on Ronaldo impression: me pretending to fall over, while blowing kisses to the crowd.

I was only able to play soccer for a few hours while in El Salvador, but one thing became clear from the start: these kids were good. Our opponents and teammates ranged in age from six to 14, and most of them could literally dribble circles around me. Keep in mind, my soccer career ended before high school, save for one junior year junior varsity campaign that resulted in one goal. I don’t play club sports—I play FIFA ’12.

Athletic prowess aside, I felt most connected to the people of El Salvador on a dusty soccer field during my ten days in Central America. Solidarity and finding similarity were two of the main themes of our trip, and I was able to find that through a discussion of Spanish soccer, or a back-heel goal that had little children chanting “Messi” at me. (This was one of the high points not only of the trip, but of my entire athletic career.)

Coincidentally, I read Nick Hornby’s memoir, “Fever Pitch,” on the plane ride to and from El Salvador. For the unfamiliar, the book’s focus is on soccer obsession, not the Boston Red Sox. Hornby details the power that soccer has on his life, and how it impacts seemingly every event in his life, no matter how major or minor.

Sports have surely had a similar effect on my life, almost all positive. My trip to El Salvador was no exception.  My ability to communicate, both verbally and non-verbally, with the people of El Salvador would have been nothing without soccer. For that, I’m thankful. Now if only I had the speed to dribble past a 12-year-old, then that would be something to write about.

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