Somewhere, during my 20s in Europe, I discovered soccer. The spark might have been a World Cup, but it could just as easily have been a Euro championship, the Continental version that tides fanatics over in between.
“GOOOOOOOOAL!” In plazas around Europe, raucous cheers ring out from bars and cafés, echo across courtyards, and generally make soccer impossible to ignore.
I wasn’t immediately drawn to the spectacle of men in shorts running to and fro on a green digital square. But there’s a when-in-Rome quality to the communal passion of Barcelona and Arsenal fans. Eventually, resistance to the social rituals of European soccer proved futile.
Back in the U.S., watching Spanish-language fútbol, I was delighted to discover that the iconic voice of “GOOOOOOOOAL” fame is a Member of the Tribe: Andrés Cantor, an Argentine-born Jew by way of Southern California.
Though you wouldn’t always know it in the U.S., Jewish soccer fans are legion — especially Latino Jews, Israelis and followers of England’s Tottenham Spurs (the “Jewish” team). Still, Cantor’s lavishly rolled Rs and legendary tenor voice bellowing out the score with — sorry — cantorial gusto are often the only Jewish connections in any given tournament.
I don’t remember my first game. But I do recall accepting the invitation of a guy I liked to watch Greece win an unlikely title against Portugal in the 2004 Euro final. Surrounded by clinking Estrella Damm glasses in a Barcelona pub, I was seduced by the action, the atmosphere, the sheer joy of a goal scored, enough to forget about the date.
Two years later, I watched the World Cup final in a tiny Chinese restaurant on the Black Sea coast with Oggi, my future husband. He cursed in Bulgarian as Italy beat France; there wasn’t a French or an Italian in the place, but lively arguments broke out in a variety of languages over penalty kicks and simulations.
That’s because — as I discovered over many Champions League, Euro and FIFA games in bars throughout Europe and beyond — few topics inspire the kind of near-universal ardor of soccer among Brits and Italians, Colombians and Argentines.
For the traveler, soccer (always called football overseas) is that rare common vocabulary that instantly breaks the conversational ice all over the world, across race, class, religion and gender. I’ve debated the merits of Messi vs. Ronaldo with cab drivers and bartenders, fellow travelers in the airport lounge and hotel clerks.
Immersion in the local sports culture is among the most entertaining ways to experience a foreign culture, and — to use a word I hate — among the most authentic, too. If you’re at all inclined to watch, I guarantee that a vacation spent amid fellow spectators, all eyes glued to the screen over the bar, will be a memorable one.
You don’t have to travel to an actual World Cup or Copa América (though if you choose this route, Chabad emissaries will be there to greet you with kosher meals and Shabbat hospitality, as they are currently doing for Jewish fans in cities throughout Russia). The stadium experience can be terrific, but as a communal expression of hope and pride, nothing beats football night at the pub.
My American friends are still scratching their heads over my conversion. To say that I don’t come from a sports family is putting it mildly. At some point I gave up even trying to understand American football; I remain largely oblivious to frenzies over LeBron, March Madness, even the hard-to-avoid Yankees.
And yet this week, like a lot of us, I’m frantically scheduling all my responsibilities — otherwise known as life — around the matches at 10 and 2 each day. Traveling through New England, where soccer has a Portuguese accent, I secretly rooted for Mexico against Brazil.
I delight in the little in-jokes of the soccer fan: the silly nicknames (Chicharito!), the outlandish hairdos that make grown men look like exotic birds, the lyrical reflections of Cantor and his colleagues as, once again, one nation after another processes defeat. “Looks like Ronaldo and Messi can go on vacation together,” he commented after Portugal followed Argentina in Saturday’s exits.
And then, as half-time commercials fill the room with bouncy Latin pop music, I hear a voice ringing out: “GOOOOOOOOAL!” It’s 4-year-old Zelda, in a pitch-perfect imitation of Cantor. I couldn’t be prouder.