My connection to soccer started from (almost) the moment I was born. Somewhere in the Sueiro family archives is a picture of me at the hospital as a newborn with a cute baby grin on my face and a soccer ball in my hands. I was just getting started. When I was four my parents took me to a World Cup soccer game, Spain vs. Switzerland at RFK stadium. Around age six I collected dozens of soccer cards and stored them in a box which had, “Life is fun. Soccer is Serious!” written on it. Those experiences planted the seeds of a lifelong soccer love affair which carries on today.
Soccer is the most beautiful, most creative, most exciting sport I’ve ever played and billions all across the globe seem to feel the same way. The passion for the sport goes back over a century and during that time different styles, philosophies, and sub cultures have emerged.
Growing up in a Spanish Peruvian household, soccer was ever present. I grew up with stories of Luis Enrique in the ‘94 World Cup and Cubillas in Spain ’82. Living in DC I was exposed to other Latin American soccer cultures. But these experiences only offered glimpses into what it felt like to be in a soccer crazed country where everyone, from the youngest child, to the eldest grandparents, eat, sleep, and breath soccer. Where soccer is not just a sport but a religion. It wasn’t until I traveled abroad to other countries that I experienced the full soccer crazed experience.
I was lucky that I had access to the Spanish and English leagues as a kid. If all I knew was the MLS it would have been more difficult to connect with the sport. MLS is a solid league but it doesn’t come close to the level of the European leagues. Nevertheless, MLS launched right around the time I started playing organized soccer. My team used to go to DC United games. We would stand in the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava sections where jumping and singing was mandatory. We learned chants like, “La Barra Brava – OH! la Barra Bruta – OH! Los que no saltan son hijos de puta – OH!” Nine-year-old me was eating it up! However, it says something that I remember what happened off the field more than I remember what happened on it. I’ll always remember those early DC United games because of novelty of being in a soccer stadium with a raucous crew, but when I think of good soccer and players who I looked up to and inspired me – I think of Real Madrid and of my favorite player ever, the legendary Brazilian outside back Roberto Carlos.
My very first team growing up was the Oyster Tiburones, a collection of kids from my elementary school – the Oyster School. I played with kids whose parents were Costa Rican, others from El Salvador, and of course some Americans. The Tiburones were part of the local youth soccer league and it followed a formal “pay to play” model. Parents paid the league to organize games with uniforms, referees, and all of the other formalities that come with organized soccer.
The feeling of formality only increased as I grew older and graduated to more competitive leagues. I started playing travel soccer right around the time I turned 10. Players had to try out for the team and the soccer program hired highly trained and experienced head coaches, some who had even coached or played in professional leagues.
There was no question that experience helped me grow as a player. But the way the game was organized added a lot of pressure to perform at a high level, to win, move up divisions, and compete at bigger tournaments. I didn’t really mind, I loved playing either way. We were a bunch of 10-year old’s and at that age we needed structure and instruction, sure, but we also needed to have fun. I didn’t realize until I visited other countries that a lot of kids had easy access to pick up games right in their neighborhoods. Kids could go down their street and find enough kids their age to kick around with. No parents, no refs, and no coaches to yell at you or tell you what to do. There was no such culture in DC at the time I was growing up. Most American kids only knew the formal version of soccer. I was lucky that I had access to both formal soccer in the US and improvised soccer during my summers in Spain.
Torrecilla en Cameros, Spain
From a young age through high school I used to vacation in Spain every summer for at least a week to two months. I would spend most of my time with a family friend who owned a home in a small mountain town in La Rioja called Torrecilla en Cameros.
Spain has a long and rich soccer history and culture. The most storied and successful soccer club in the world – none other than Real Madrid (get out of here with your Man U or Barca talk… you know who you are) – is based in Spain. Spain began their soccer love affair over a hundred years ago. Sevilla FC and Recreativo de Huelva were founded in 1890 followed by Athletic Club in 1898 which was formed by Basque students returning from Britain (hence why they use the English Athletic and not the Spanish Atlético).
I became friends with the neighborhood boys in Torrecilla, and as any good Spanish boys do, we played a lot of soccer. We played anywhere and everywhere. We played on narrow cobble stone streets, we played on a basketball court, we played at the “frontón” or blacktop that served as a court for a squash like sport. We even played in a hay and rock filled field next to an abandoned church and (what we imagined as 9 year olds at least) a centuries old cemetery. And yes, we sent several balls into the cemetery which played out exactly like the scene in the Sandlot when Benny challenges the beast, except instead of a massive dog we had ghosts on our tail.
We were competitive, but ultimately our games were informal and fun. We would try moves that the biggest soccer stars could do with ease. We would experiment with creative passes: long passes, short passes, passes with a lot of curve, inside of the foot passes, outside of the foot passes. It was like “and one” soccer. If you could think it, you would try it. The score almost didn’t matter unless someone talked some smack, in which case the score was the only thing that mattered. We trash talked, joked, laughed, yelled, and there were always two or three running jokes going at any one time.
There were occasional tournaments too. These were a different matter. In a small town like Torrecilla, these tournaments felt embarrassingly disorganized and yet the most important events on earth. These were played on the fronton court and followed futsal rules with a 5 v 5 set up, keeper included. Anyone could form a team, all that was required was a small inscription fee, matching uniforms, a team name, and you were in. The ref was usually someone from the town, and in a town like this everyone knew everyone or was somehow related to everyone. The prize was maybe the most Spanish thing ever: the town’s finest jamón ibérico (Iberian ham).
Ultimately, what defined soccer in a place like Torrecilla was the fun of it. Yeah, it was serious, but it was mostly a pastime. Something to do with friends and have a good laugh.
El Progreso, Honduras
El Progreso is in the north of Honduras, about 1.5 hours from the beach and in a hot, humid valley. El Progreso is a small city with about 180 thousand people in the entire metropolitan area. I moved there for work in 2013 and lived there for about two years.
Honduras has almost as long of a soccer history as Spain. Soccer was introduced to Honduras by English sailors at Puerto Cortes in 1896. The first professional soccer team was established in 1912: Club Deportivo Olimpia. Like Spain, Honduras is soccer crazed.
I was in Honduras for the 2014 World Cup in which Honduras participated. Honduras was in group E with France, Switzerland, and Ecuador. When Honduras played, everything stopped. Nearly every store had a TV or radio playing the game. They would blast the game so loud that you could walk downtown and hear every play unfold. Our office didn’t even bother to pretend to do work. We cleared off someone’s desk, set up a TV, and pulled up our chairs to watch. There wasn’t much to cheer for, Honduras lost 3-0 to France and Switzerland but there was at least one special moment.
In the game against Ecuador Carlos Costly put Honduras up in the 31st minute with an absolute missile. It was Honduras’ first World Cup goal in 32 years. They hadn’t scored in so long, people were saying they were cursed. I’ll never forget the reaction to that goal. At mid afternoon on a work day in El Progreso, everyone went crazy. My office mates were yelling and jumping up and down, some were on the verge of tears. Outside cars honked, people yelled and whistled, and a sudden wave of firecrackers and cherry bombs went off across the city. Costly literally cried on the field after he scored. I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated as hard as my Honduran friends did in that moment. I doubt my Honduran friends celebrate that hard for their own personal accomplishments!
Playing soccer in Honduras was an intense affair. I used to play with the Villa Soleada team. Villa Soleada is a small “colonia” or neighborhood in the outskirts of El Progreso. As is customary in soccer loving countries, their soccer field lay at the center of the neighborhood. Every weekend there was an organized soccer game against a nearby colonia. We would play 11 v 11 with a ref. Every player had to pay 15-20 lempira (about a dollar) for the referee, water, and the team manager. To be clear, we weren’t playing in a tournament or a league, but it had the feeling of a very serious event. The gameplay reflected this. Honduran soccer is probably the roughest brand of soccer I’ve ever played. It wasn’t dirty (although there were always one or two players on each team who were skilled at the art of playing dirty), it was just super physical. The Honduran brand is extremely aggressive, direct to goal, and relies heavily on the long ball. Playing long balls was in part a necessity. Most of the fields are treated like public parks, but the municipality doesn’t usually provide maintenance and most neighborhoods don’t have the money to lay down grass or pay for proper maintenance. So they play on rocky, lopsided, and sometimes just straight dirt fields. Playing the ball in the air was usually the most reliable way to give a pass.
Another thing that stood out to me is that players literally pray when they are on the field. Every player would cross themselves as they step on the field before games. Some would take a moment to say a silent prayer just before the whistle blew for kickoff. Sometimes one of the players would even say an emphatic prayer in the pregame huddle. After all, they don’t say soccer is religion for no reason.
The Basque country on the north coast of Spain is a fascinating region with a unique culture, deeply rooted traditions, and proud people. Bilbao is home to Athletic Club who implement a unique philosophy whereby they only sign players from the Basque country. This philosophy reinforces the fans deep sense of Basque pride and allegiance to the team.
I studied in Bilbao at the University of Deusto as part of a study abroad program in the Winter/Spring of 2010. Some people draw similarities between Pittsburgh and Bilbao. Both were known for their steel industry, blue-collar identities, and are situated in mountainous regions. Today Bilbao is no longer the industrial hub it once was, instead it combines a modern and artistic vibe (especially downtown and near the Guggenheim) with a slow-paced yet urban feel.
I’ve never lived in a city that felt more connected to a team. On game days everything stopped. Businesses closed, streets were empty, and everyone was in a bar or at home watching the game. Home games were an incredible experience. People would line the streets near the San Mamés stadium for hours before the game. People would bar hop with a group of friends, eat “pinxos” (similar to tapas) and “cañas” (draft beer) at each stop. On game days virtually everyone wore the red and white Athletic colors. The crowd was always a mix of kids, older folks, and families. However, this didn’t make the games any less intense. In fact, from start to finish every single person is plugged into the game. Whereas in baseball for example, fans can spend time chatting, every person in the San Mamés stadium hangs on every play, every movement, every touch of the ball, and the drama that unfolds on the pitch.
The environment in the stadium is always electric. Fans really feel like their support helps the team and whenever it looks like the team needs a little boost, fans would start a chant, most notably the simple “ATHLETIC! ATHLETIC!” At halftime families whip out their tin foil wrapped “bocadillo” (baguette sandwich) which feels like one of those oddly homey customs that could never be allowed at sporting venues in the states.
I played a lot of pick up soccer in Bilbao. One common feature of the city was the ubiquity of public soccer courts. You could find one practically every few blocks. They are roughly the size of a basketball court and are fitted with futsal goals. What was striking about playing on these courts is that the style of play was so different than in the US. I played with a group of Americans against whoever happened to be at the court. Us Americans moved constantly and we didn’t keep much possession. We played direct towards goal and took a lot of shots. The Basque kids we played against had almost the opposite style. They wanted to play slow, they wanted to keep possession, and they didn’t run or move nearly as much as we did. They were deliberate yet extremely skilled and quick in spurts. They didn’t take a lot of shots, it felt like they were trying to inch their way as close as possible to our goal until they found an opening and only then would they strike.
The International Game
I love that there are so many ways to play soccer, so many styles, so much history, and so much to offer. I’m lucky that I experienced a few of the many different soccer cultures. The United States is definitely the least developed of the soccer cultures I’ve experienced. It’s simply not a big sport here yet, but it’s growing and it has an eclectic soccer history with the likes of Pele, David Villa, and David Beckham having played here. It’ll take some time, but soccer will inevitably become big in the US. For now, it’s still very much a sport on the margins, one played mostly in pay to play settings.
Honduras has a surprisingly strong soccer culture. I knew it was a country where soccer was important, but I didn’t know just how ubiquitous it is in people’s lives or how long its history goes back. Entire communities are literally organized around soccer fields! People pray during games! In a context where a lot of people are struggling, the games felt like they had a different level of importance. As a result, many play soccer with a different level of seriousness. Not simply as a game but a rare opportunity to express oneself even to prove oneself. As the character of Richard the Lion Heart says in the 1968 movie The Lion in Winter, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.” When soccer is all there is, it matters.
Finally, Spain is certainly one of the most prestigious soccer cultures in the world. Year after year Spain produces top tier talent and it’s a testament to just how ingrained the sport is in Spanish society. Maybe entire communities aren’t designed around soccer fields, but soccer courts are integrated in every town and city in Spain much like basketball courts are in Harlem and New York City. Soccer is so ingrained in Spanish life that it becomes second nature. Barcelona’s saying goes, “més que un club.” Or more than a club. And it’s true. To some Cataláns Barcelona FC is a political expression. It’s a source of Catalán pride and a way to get back at Franco and the monarchy (Real Madrid was the favored club of the fascist dictator, and their name and logo are literally an expression of royalty). A similar feeling is associated with Athletic Bilbao whose team anthem is in the Basque language and whose philosophy reflects a deep pride in their region and independence from Spain. [VIDEO]
For better or for worse soccer is more than just a game to me as it is to a lot of people. I associate a lot of memories and life lessons with it. And it continues to be a source of joy and camaraderie in my life. After all I met some of my closest friends while playing soccer in college. I wanted to write this blog because I wanted to explore the differences in soccer cultures across countries. But for all of the differences (and others could write at length about the unique cultures of countless other countries), what fascinates me is that they are all bound together by something so simple: a ball and a few friends.