Soccer in the Sun
© Rama V (Flickr)

3 Ways Sport Brings Travelers & Locals Together

Sport is a universal thing. And the best thing is you don’t have be a mad sports fan to get together with the locals in front of a football game or get involved in some activity yourself.

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I’m definitely no sportswoman (my teachers would’ve failed me in Physical Education if they could have) but even I have a great collection of traveling experiences centered on sport. So, one-eyed sports fans and couch potatoes alike, read on.

Visiting During a Big Sports Competition

Back when the 2002 FIFA World Cup was on, I accidentally booked a trip to Seoul for the week of the finals — South Korea was the co-host. Not being a soccer/football fan, I had no idea at all and thought I might have made a huge mistake. Yes, the place was full, although fortunately the football fans were staying in fancier places than my hostel so accommodation wasn’t a problem; but it definitely wasn’t a mistake.

© The_Adventures_of_Steph en_Heckman

Instead, I got caught up in the fever. Everybody was so happy and I ended up wearing a supporter’s T-shirt and cheering for South Korea while they played in the semi-finals — I joined a crowd of one million in central Seoul, watching the game on big screens. Locals shared their snacks with me, another gave me a bit of newspaper to sit on, and some teenagers taught me the Korean cheer songs. So even for someone like me who could barely follow the rules of the game, visiting during such a big competition was actually perfect timing.

Football follows me, because when I lived in Germany the 2006 World Cup grabbed everybody’s attention, and my own Australian team was based just a few villages away from me. This time I took advantage of my nationality and waved an (often lone) Aussie flag at the outdoor viewing sessions for the games — and that got the locals to come up and chat with me about the fortunes of my team. I even made friends with a local police officer who was so amazed that a real Australian was watching the game in his hometown.

So don’t be scared of booking a trip that coincides with a big sports tournament. As long as you make sure you’re not going to be hindered by impossibly rare or expensive accommodation, or an overloaded transport system (during an Olympics might not work, for example), then you might find it’s the time when the locals are happiest to meet new people and there’ll be much more excitement and action than any other time.

Learning About the Local Sports

For all those non-cricket playing nations: before you go to India, learn about cricket. If you’re traveling pretty much anywhere else in the world: understand soccer (but call it football). With these basic skills, you will be able to fit in with locals in a good majority of the world. All the friends I have who’ve traveled through India came back with photographs of themselves playing cricket with the local kids, who seem to play it endlessly and anywhere. Same goes for football across South America or Europe.

When I visited Saint Petersburg in Russia, I discovered a sport that I still want to learn more about. I spent a whole morning watching a gang of locals play a really unusual sport in some outdoor alleyways just outside the Peter and Paul Fortress. The sport — someone claimed to have known the name and told me, but it remains a mystery to me — seemed to be a distant cousin of bowling, played with a long stick and a bunch of small pipes that were set up in various formations at one end of a long strip of concrete, and should be knocked backwards off the concrete. The locals let me have a go (I was useless, it was much harder than it looked) and tried to explain the rules, but my Russian didn’t get that far at all. But it certainly put another spin on a famous tourist attraction.

Keep a look out for what activities the locals are up to and try to get involved. You’ll learn about their culture and habits as well as just a simple sport.

Catching the ‘Bee © Tom Chambers

Joining a Frisbee Game in the Park

Just for the record, I’m usually too shy to do this myself, but I’ve met quite a few people who’ve been brave enough to ask to join my Frisbee game. Of course, what I really mean is that whenever you see a bunch of people throwing a ball or model plane or something around in a park, you could ask if it’s okay to join in with them. Locals who are relaxing on the weekend or after work are often really open to meeting new people and giving you some tips on what else you could get up to in their town.

Once you get involved with any local games, be sure to make the effort to get a conversation going. I’ll always remember a guy in Germany who seemed really pleasant, and asked to join the Frisbee game I was having with three or four friends, but then he never said another word. We were having a fairly muddled English and German conversation anyway, but he just put his head down and threw the disc back whenever it reached him, then smiled and walked away when we said we had to get home. Perhaps it was his first effort to follow my tips!

Sport is the Great Equalizer

Depending on you how you approach things, sports could create all kinds of conflict; but if you take the right tactics, you can use the relaxed nature of sports to build a bridge to local cultures and local people. If you’ve had any experiences with creating connections using sports while you travel, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

  1. Following sports while in other countries can be a life changing experience. When I was in Tokyo a few years ago I attended a Basho, a sumo tournament. I was so impressed with the athleticism of the participants I continued to follow the sport ever after. Now I write an occasional column on sumo on a very well-read blog. My ultimate ambition is that on my income tax form I will answer the question: “Occupation?” with the answer “Sumo Correspondent.” Soon, I hope.

  2. I recall going to watch a Spanish “La Liga” match last year while in Madrid. The crowd was insane before the game and when the home team score 40 seconds into the game, they got even crazier. I went crazy myself. The fans put whatever goes on in the US to shame. Looking forward to watching Argentina in a World Cup qualifier this year… pray I survive that crowd.

  3. Sports will always bring people together. Amanda’s so on target.
    I also was in Spain for a match last year, in this case, a championship match. Don’t ask me the teams – Real Madrid versus another team. Obviously, I’m not a “football” aficionado. The point is, I was in a little town, Barco de Avila, for the match and many people there went to a bar to watch it on TV. A group of us “Anglos” sat at a bunch of tables. The townspeople knew we weren’t from there and kept looking our way, intrigued. We were as interested in them. The staff people were very patient with our fumbling Spanish when we ordered beers and tapas. It was great to be able to have an “authentic” experience in a rural area two hours from Madrid. The excitement was palpable.(The smoke was thick!) And, for one night, we really felt a part of the neighborhood.

  4. boldlygosolo, you made a good point there quite incidentally – you definitely don’t need to be an aficionado to be able to get involved with a local sports team wherever you travel.

    Glad both of you enjoyed such great Spanish sports experiences. Anthony, good luck in the Argentina game crowd!

  5. Nothing beats watching a football (soccer) game….it brings everyone together. I remember watching games in Asia with complete strangers…by the end we were buddies!

  6. Matt, I agree completely. Sharing a game together (whatever sport, probably) instantly gives you something in common, even if you’re an out-of-towner.

  7. On my first day in Rio travelling solo years ago I went to the famous Americana Stadium with 2 Brazilians, 1 Italian, 1 Spanish, 1 USA and I am Irish. How and where else would bring together a mix of people like that! – It was great1

  8. Going to sports events abroad is something I love! Even if it’s just a local team of guys who play in their spare time.

    Joining sports leagues abroad is another great way to meet people while either playing a sport you love, or discovering a new one. Us Canadians don’t often play touch rugby or netball but I had a great time playing both when I was in London.

    Here in Beijing the locals love kicking a hackey sack type thing around. Young and old. I’m trying to pluck up the courage (and the skills!) to have a kick aroun done of these days.

    Great article!

  9. Kirsty, I would definitely encourage the hackey sack thing – go for it! I agree, joining a sports league (especially social sports) is great – in Australia or the UK, playing netball one evening a week is practically compulsory! Great way to meet people if you’re staying somewhere for a while.

  10. Marilyn linked to my piece above, but II thought I’d add my two cents. My boyfriend traveled throughout Europe attending soccer games, and all of his favorite travel stories come from there. And he’s drawing me in as well, our soccer experience in Baja was one of the highlights of our trip.

  11. A few years ago, in Guatamala a cool New Years Eve was changed into a life long memory when my travel buddies and I got involved in a football kick around. It was about 10 o’clock at night and we went for a break from drinking. There in the town centre was a lit concrete football pitch. Some boys were playing and one thing lead to another and soon a match started between locals and travellers. It was very competative but great fun. Our team was made up of Canadians, Americans, a Swiss and me (a Brit).
    In sports, you don’t need to speak the language and despite competing against them, we also connected with the local boys, in a way that would have been difficult otherwise.
    Also, all around us, there were fireworks going off, making it extra special.
    After the match, we were all soaked with sweat but we went back to the bar and continued celebrating, this time, with more energy and a very special memory.

  12. Sport is able to bridge language barriers and cultural differences. It’s also a great way to feel like you “belong” when you are somewhere completely foreign as locals tend to embrace whoever is there supporting along side them. I’ve had some great experiences supporting local teams in places I’ve lived abroad, or even catching matches on TV at a local bar.

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