This week, the World Cup, that once-every-four-years celebration of sport and national pride, is ending the opening rounds and moving into the knockout stage. After Thursday, only 16 teams will be left to play for what is probably the most prized trophy in the entire world. Even if your team has already been knocked out, or didn’t qualify, chances are you are watching with rapt attention this magnificent display of sports. The question to consider today is whether or not sports, particularly soccer, can be a good thing for schools with international students (for the purpose of this article, written in America, we will continue to say “soccer”, while acknowledging that this term puts it in the firm global minority). There are many people who think that sports are divisive, maybe even destructive, especially when they revolve entirely around a nation. But in the end, we believe that this can be a great thing to help create friendships and bridge a divide between international students and their American counterparts.

World Cup trophy

This is the trophy for which the whole world reaches. It is also a great way for international students to make friends.

The case against sports

Soccer, the global game, is never just soccer. People use it to explain a lot- Frankling Foer of The New Republic even wrote a fun and charming book about how “soccer explains the world.”  But it is more than just analogy, unfortunately. Especially during the World Cup, people tend to assume the national team mirrors some stereotype of national character- i.e. South American teams play with verve and flair, the Germans are very efficient, the Japanese very methodical. And while there are different philosophies among teams, it is more often the case that we watch the team and then retroactively justify it by assigning the nation some sort of mirroring characteristic. So from the beginning, the World Cup is tinged with uncomfortably broad assertions.

Then there is the idea that sports, especially high-level soccer, is “war by other means.” George Orwell was too smart to think that sports were a cause of tension, but he felt they reflected an ugly nationalism, the outcome of which had the world still reeling when he wrote “The Sporting Spirit” in 1945, concluding “There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.” Orwell, of course, didn’t live long enough to see an actual war caused by soccer, the battles between El Salvador and Honduras which started due to inflamed tensions caused by soccer games, nor how violent soccer clubs helped spark the return of fascism and ethnic hatred in the former Yugoslavia.

The case for

But of course, the so-called “Football War” didn’t break out between two friendly nations simply because of a game- that was simply the match dropped into a tinder-dry forest. You could say that supports Orwell’s point, but it is probable to assume nearly anything else could have caused that war at that point. And in Croatia, there were a number of factors that led to fascism’s rise. It was bound to be driven by bored young men; that they had organized themselves into soccer clubs was more a chance than an explanation.

But that’s the good thing about sports- at its purest, it takes this youthful energy and funnels it into something positive, something charming, and something to cheer for. For fans, it gives an irrational reason to be happy or sad. It is a distraction, but generally a harmless one. Even if you “hate” an opposing club or player, you don’t really hate them, and it is honestly a welcome feeling. The sportswriter Joe Posnanski describes such a feeling as to “Clemenate (KLEM-a-nayt), verb, to hate an athlete in an entirely healthy, fun sports way (rather than hating them in a crazed, stalking, loaded gun, insane sort of way).” But it is more than just bringing together people who like the same thing- it is bringing together people who don’t.

Traditionally, America is not a soccer nation, so much so we made up a word in order to keep “football” what we think it is. But the interest is growing, as the MLS has taken root, and more pertinently, the country is behind U.S. soccer in Brazil more than ever. Ratings for Sunday’s gut punch draw against Portugal set records, and they don’t take into account the massive viewing parties across the country. This isn’t to say that America is becoming a soccer nation. It will probably always be a second-tier sport, but that’s fine. So is hockey. But they have huge and growing fan bases, and there is a spirit in the air that there hasn’t been before.

An opening to bridge separations

This is great for international students looking for a conversational opening and for American students looking both to make friends with foreign students and to learn more about the beautiful game. Trying to figure out what to talk about can be difficult. If you aren’t sure about each other’s cultures, ideas, or beliefs, it can be awkward to suddenly open up a conversation. That’s where the beauty of sports comes in. Soccer is a global language. You can talk about how you think there shouldn’t have been an extra minute added to penalty time in the U.S./Portugal game (or explain why there should have been). Talk about Brazil’s striking tactics. Ask about players you don’t know. Talk about what you think America’s chances are. There are countless topics. People make small talk not just to kill the time, but to learn little things about a person, and it is from there that friendships are born.

So soccer doesn’t cause every problem, nor does it solve it. But it can help to make a conversation start. And those conversations can be the beginning of friendships that bridge not just language gaps, but can span continents and even lifetimes.

 

The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.