Many, many moons ago when I was only a little Italian tadpole, I tended goal for the traveling soccer team in my hometown. I had a good time doing the rough and tumble thing with my teammates, and I especially liked rolling around in the dirt when I had to make a diving save. But my soccer career came to a halt before I hit high school, when my interest shifted to much nerdier pursuits like student council and drama club. My memories of the sport––rules and regulations, teams and heroes and superstars––have been reduced to those soft-edged mental images of my fellow players and I hanging out at the local ice cream shop after games. Sometimes it meant celebrating a big win, but less successful days were just as satisfying when I could wrap my sorrows up in a smooth, creamy, sprinkle-spackled hug.
It was all ages ago. And so the advent of this year’s World Cup came and went for me with little fanfare. I knew it was going down, but I wasn’t the one getting up at five a.m. to switch on the television, or rallying the troops to relieve the corner bar of whatever drink specials were on tap for morning revelers.
But then some funny things happened. I first noticed at my local café, where I was the only patron in the place for an early lunch. The staff in the open kitchen were milling around, busying themselves with a few menial duties––I figure just trying to look busy. But the TV behind my head was what really had their attention. I glanced at the game, which was on mute, and then back at my kale salad. A few times I caught stymied reactions to what was happening on the screen behind me. It wasn’t a sports bar, and they were clearly trying to maintain some decorum in front of their customer. But about halfway through my meal, my server came over. “Excuse me, miss?” I tried to contain the forkful of greens I was stuffing in my mouth. “We were just wondering, would you mind terribly if we turned on the sound?” Of course not! I told him (with my eyes, while I swallowed like a civilized person). “Thanks,” he said. “There’s just something about watching soccer with the sound that changes the game.” He beamed, and the three dudes behind the tiny counter nodded to me, thumbs appreciatively up. A few minutes later, everyone in the place was rapt by the game––me included. Pretty quickly I found myself asking questions, taking notes and taking sides, and getting an education on what was happening in the wide world of the sport.
And from then on, it was everywhere I turned. When I came home to find the painters in my building’s vestibule huddled around an old radio shouting at them in Spanish, knuckles white around their brushes, awaiting news from the disembodied voice that had already gone hoarse from commentary. Then at my local market, while I was picking out some eggplant for dinner and the stockboys stopped emptying crates so they could stand around the tiny screen of someone’s cell phone. Customers put down their peppers and stepped away from the cheese section. We all––again, me included––made a human bottleneck of the whole produce area.
I will tell you that I still don’t know a whole lot more today than I did a few weeks ago about the game’s nuances, but I do know more about the people in my neighborhood. I know the guys at the café and where they come from. I know why they were rooting for one country over another, and maybe they even learned a little from me when I rambled on about the food customs of this one or that one.
And while I’ll never be an expert in the sport, I now know one thing for sure: soccer (football, futbol, whatever it is your people call it), is a lot like food. Both are universal languages. Both bring a little joy to what might otherwise be rote daily life. Both help us to dissolve the barriers that keep us apart on a regular basis. And in a world that feels deeply divided these days, it is through both that we can come together to celebrate a precious few things so elemental and exciting, and ultimately, unifying.
We’ve been fortunate to feature food stories from many of those countries that have participated in the competition, but to citizens of all the world, the ones watching the Cup in small cafés and in vestibules and markets around the globe, may we all observe—both victory and defeat—with something very delicious.
May I recommend the vanilla with rainbow sprinkles?