As most of the world tends to agree, Americans just don’t really get soccer.
Firstly, we call it soccer instead of football. The title ‘football’ we gave to our own unique sport, one that seems to have won over the hearts and minds of the American people. Elsewhere, soccer reigns supreme in the international sporting world. Players are hailed as national heroes and make more money than Hollywood superstars. The majority of Americans, it seems, just aren’t that invested in the world of soccer raging on outside our borders. I certainly wasn’t, even though I enjoyed playing as a kid – but then I went to Central America for the first time.
I spent a few days travelling in Costa Rica boating through the rainforest, trying my first plantains, desperately searching for sea turtles and meeting new people. As it turns out, I just so happened to have arrived in the middle of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Costa Rica was doing amazing and you could see the difference it made to the locals who came together for watch parties. This was a big deal for Costa Rica, a smaller country, to show the world and the football giants what they were made of. Fairly quicky, I found myself cheering along with my new friends. The rush of adrenaline that shot through me as our team neared the goal was a passion stronger than I had ever felt for a sport before. Looking around at all the screaming and crying faces of the Costa Ricans as the winning goal was scored, I started to understand how important the sport is to people.
When I left for Nicaragua, the World Cup was still going strong and I was sad to leave the exuberant soccer fans behind who had included me as one of their own and patiently answered my questions. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to experience the games in the same way or follow Costa Rica to a potential final victory, but these worries were soon squashed when I met my host family. Living with the Miranda family was one of the times I truly felt I had a home away from home. Among the many adventures we had together was continuing to have on-the-edge-of-your-seat family viewings of the World Cup games, and I tell you that I had reached the peak of my knowledge of insults in Spanish at this point. Watching Costa Rica get kicked out of the running due to penalty kicks was hard, but we still enjoyed the other games together almost daily, all the way up until I had to say my goodbyes.
It astounds me that if I had never gone abroad for the first time, taken that first step into the unknown and the unfamiliar, I would have never gotten the chance to get to know this part of the world and this part of myself. The World Cup provided an extra element for my first time in Latin America that deepened my experience and my connection to the amazing people that I met. Years later, I still follow the players I learned about from my Costa Rican friends and Nicaraguan host family as my love for soccer grows. There is always more to learn, but I like to consider myself one of the Americans that ‘gets it’, or is at least starting to.