Can’t hurry love: An American in Spain chases World Cup dreams

An American plans a move to Spain, hoping to fall in love with travel, culture and soccer during the World Cup. What he finds is something else.

“Did you watch the game?” one girl asked me in English.

“Which one?” I asked.

“U.S.” she said, referring to their first World Cup match against Wales.

“I watched the score,” I said. “I know they were winning until late. Did you watch?”

The girl and her friend, who wore soccer warmup pants, nodded vigorously. I did a quick reenactment: miming a check of my phone and cocking my head back with an exasperated sigh about Wales’ late score. I told them I’d gone to El Alcazar, the royal palace built more than 1,000 years ago, with my girlfriend Mari.

“I had to do a romantic night,” I said.

They smiled and giggled, signaling their full comprehension.

In October, I’d started working as an English language assistant and cultural ambassador in Seville, through a program run by Spain’s Ministry of Education. My girlfriend Mari was working as an assistant at a nearby school. In my first days, I’d told students how excited I was for the World Cup. I also taught them the phrase “fist bump” and walked around the classroom to show each student how it was done. The tradition continued in the hallways and many classes greeted me with the type of applause awarded to stars in La Liga.

I told the girls in gym class I’d definitely watch the next U.S. game against England that weekend without such an early alarm for school in the morning. After a week in Spain, I’d learned that girls playing soccer there still isn’t the norm. My niece is around their age and plays soccer for her high school. I asked these girls if they played. The girl in warmups said she played goalkeeper, but the other one said she was a big fan. I pointed to myself. “Me too,” I said. Well, I wanted to be anyway.

Like most Americans, I grew up watching and playing far more football than soccer. I’m a Buffalo Bills season ticket holder who grew up an hour away in Rochester, NY. Before leaving for Spain I had to reconcile missing the rest of their season, one in which they entered as Super Bowl favorites and started off strong before my departure. I’d spent too much of my life envisioning a Super Bowl parade.

Over the summer, I’d read Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond, who argues we should either abandon the sport or at least awaken ourselves to its atrocities. He poignantly documents the health hazards players who are mostly black suffer while mostly white owners and business sycophants suck money from cities that could desperately use it for school systems, healthcare and other infrastructure. I wanted a break from football, a violent sport in our culture surrounded by violence, including a disproportionate amount plaguing my city of Rochester.

So, at 47, I decided to fulfill a different long-term dream, one in which I imagined holding more control of my fate. I’d visited Spain for a week in my mid-20s and had entertained the thought of living there ever since. I took Spanish in school, including a few college courses, and still aspired to total fluency. I wanted to immerse myself in Europe. I wanted to fall in love with a new sport.

The World Cup happening while I was there seemed like the perfect opportunity. I’d envisioned telling teachers I liked soccer and receiving invites to watch games. This didn’t happen. In the first few weeks, I’d quickly understood the barrier my current level of Spanish fluency in conversation would present. Most teachers spoke little English.

The kids at my school did love soccer, though. They knew the American word for it well and delighted in me passing around stickers of soccer players I’d begun collecting the prior year while in Brazil.

Spanish football fans seen waiting for the national team to arrive at Estadio Benito Villamarin on June 2, 2022, in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Zed Jameson/MB Media/Getty Images)

Searching for World Cup soccer in Spain

Disappointingly, though, I saw very few bars around the city showing soccer on TV. I’d been hoping for a place where I could become a regular, picturing a corner spot with a good vantage spot as “my seat” by the time the World Cup happened.

Instead, I’d watched three Bills games using the NFL’s Game Pass International before I’d ever watched a soccer game. It finally happened at the end of October, and I was surprised Mari wanted to come with me. She’s not particularly fond of sports. Then again, we’d had little luck making friends. I went to see Barcelona take on Valencia in a regular season La Liga match. Barcelona’s superstar Robert Lewandowski is one of the first stickers I’d pulled from a pack while in Brazil. And midfielder Pedri is an up-and-coming star in Spain. Only a handful of us watched the game intently, but I could tell a woman nearby was also rooting for Barcelona because of how she flinched at scoring chances. Overall, viewers were subdued. Even in the 93rd minute, the place hardly murmured when Lewandowski netted a pretty sliding goal to win the game 1-0. I figured everyone must be saving their energy for the Copa Mundial.

Or maybe not – when I asked a teacher, who was wearing a soccer jersey, whether he was excited to watch the World Cup next week, he muttered something in English. Still, it was almost indecipherable. I could tell by his tone and the only word I heard that his anticipation hardly matched mine. The word he said with disdain: “Qatar.” A few days later, I’d read that many German pubs and businesses weren’t even showing the games in protest of the tournament taking place in Qatar, because of its exploitation of migrant workers and views on homosexuality.

Students still seemed enthused. One group huddled around a girl with an iPhone watch during gym class. They gasped when Saudi Arabia scored two second-half goals to upset Argentina.

The students at school were by far the highlight of my time in Spain. Their curiosity about the U.S. and willingness to tell me more about their culture came easily. Almost everything else about our employment as language assistants proved challenging. By the time the World Cup started, though, we’d made the decision to resign.

We’d worked far more hours per week than the 12 hours it said on our contract. Mari wouldn’t see any of her wages for more than two months. Nobody had told us that landlords wouldn’t rent to us at the going market value unless we signed a year-long contract. Yet our contract only lasted through May. Without a year lease, landlords wanted us to pay extra deposits and finder’s fees. Between the two of us, we’d received 700 Euros in our first two months while paying more than $3,600 to live in Airbnb apartments. The math didn’t add up.

I’d still hoped we could become Digital Nomads when Spain’s government approved the new visa sometime in early 2023. We could make more money with our freelance work and move somewhere cheaper. A visit to a lawyer quickly extinguished this plan. We’d have to leave the EU before applying for another visa, she said.

Her explanation evoked my anger followed by tears several days later. I’d sold my car, paid a $1,300 fee to sublet my apartment and traveled twice to New York City to get my visa approved. I’d invested in this dream and didn’t feel ready to return to the U.S. We looked at other options, including countries like Croatia and Morocco where I could still root for their teams in the World Cup. Researching, I felt like I was traveling the world without going anywhere. I was not sleeping well. And although Mari had tested negative for Covid-19 in early October, a nasty cough and sinusitis had persisted for weeks. We were tired. The goal posts on my dream of global adventure and soccer fanaticism were sliding.

Photo Credit: Geoff Graser

Still, I made it a point to cheer on Spain. Going back to my first days at school, I told the students I’d definitely be rooting for them. Spain’s game against Costa Rica was the first of the World Cup we watched. Again, Mari wanted to join me. I suggested we go to a place close to our current apartment, which would allow Mari to leave at halftime if she wanted. We poked our heads in a couple places. Yet after I heard a loud cheer down the street mere minutes after the game started, we decided on that impossibly bright bar we’d seen on the corner. Mari said it looked like a place where locals, instead of throngs of tourists, would go. The Rey de la Cerveza had a tiny bar and maybe five tables. There were no more than 10 people, and the median age was roughly 55. I tried to find a decent vantage point to see the one TV high above an exit, observing the 1-0 score in favor of Spain. Spain scored again on a deft goal by Marco Asensio. I clapped the loudest. I don’t remember hearing anyone else cheer.

“Hey baby, he’s one of the guys that I have a sticker of,” I said to Mari, who’d bought me a couple extra packs of stickers for the prior Christmas. “Thanks to you.” With a 3-0 lead at halftime and the bar’s kitchen still on siesta for another two hours, we left to make dinner at home. I didn’t think we’d miss four more goals in the second half.

On the day of Spain’s second game, my fantasy football team faced a do-or-die game, so I only watched the score periodically on ESPN. What surprised me most about watching the World Cup in Spain was Mari’s growing interest in watching Brazil play. We missed their first game because the Bills played at the same time on Thanksgiving, but after that, she insisted on going to their games.

In another brightly lit venue – picture an upscale mall food court – along the Guadalquivir river, we watched Brazil’s first-round game against Cameroon. We’d watched their previous game against Switzerland on a terrace by the river, but on this day they only showed the Croatia game outside. Inside, a group of children in school uniforms, a girl or two along with several boys, watched the game. The most entertaining part of a scoreless first half between Cameroon and Brazil was when the trainer knelt to an injured Cameroon player on the pitch. Thanks to no belt, the trainer revealed his “plumber’s crack” to the world. The squeal and laughs of the boys and girls behind us provided the highlight of the World Cup thus far.

The empty tables of the bars in the center of Sevilla empty of tourism due to COVID-19, coronavirus, on September 17, 2020 in Sevilla, Spain. (Photo by Joaquin Corchero / AFP7 / Getty Images)

We watched the next Brazil game in the same place. It was the first round of the knockout phase. Some people behind us appeared to be watching the game, but not everyone. Brazil rewarded us for our loyalty, it seemed, this time scoring four goals in the first half. Only Mari and I high-fived when Brazil scored. We did hear a cheer, however, an “ole” when South Korea finally scored to break the shutout late in the second half. I couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic and cracked up a little at the genuine exuberance that South Korean fans at the stadium showed after that goal, which felt meaningless to me.

At an Irish pub called The Merchant, only 10 minutes walk from the fourth flat where we’d stayed, I found the football, er, I mean soccer-crazy crowd I sought. I walked in with the U.S. down 2-1 to the Netherlands with the second half just beginning. I saw a few with shirts representing the stars and stripes, but far more with orange regalia. Standing room only, I had little choice of where I stood, so I ended up close to a group of mostly men and boys, with one older woman, laden with orange. The man closest to me wore an orange cape.

I loved hearing their chants in Dutch to melodies (maybe American) I recognized. They spoke great English, too. Having less than fully invested in the American side, they didn’t bother me a twit. I focused on the game but also liked having them as background music, having a joyous time, drinking beers and talking as much as they watched the game. Then Haji Wright scored for the Americans. Now, we had a ballgame. The folks in orange stared at the TV now, too. That lasted about five more minutes. Denzel Dumfries scored for the Netherlands on a stunning cross. The Dutch fans soon chanted, “I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win.”

I hadn’t known this chant was property of the U.S.A. A young woman behind me did. She stepped toward them with the clock winding down, away from the guys surrounding another nearby table, one wearing a Jayson Tatum jersey.

“Guys, can you stop doing the American chant,” she said. “It’s annoying.”

They were a little surprised at her audacity. Stop chanting the American chant?

After a little back and forth, they ended up hugging it out. One saying, “In the end, it’s just a game.” The orange continued other chants in Dutch.

Fans of Brazil react while watching the live broadcast of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 17 football match between Brazil and Croatia at a bar in Brasilia on December 9, 2022. (Photo by Mateus Bonomi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

I encouraged Mari to come with me to The Merchant for Brazil’s match against Croatia. After watching at the food court, Mari was stunned at how many people were really into the game. Again, standing room only. I wore a green shirt, although it sported the emblem for Rochester’s working-class beer rather than Brazil. A family speaking Portuguese and clasping their hands for Brazil sat near us. Two other fans were at the bar. A woman wearing a Brazilian flag stood behind us. The tension of a nil-nil game was something painful. Mari, who’s not drawn to overt emblems of patriotism in any country, chatted with the girl wearing the flag. This self-proclaimed fanatic was surprised that Mari, in a rust-colored beret and brown skirt, was from Brazil.

“It’s cool to know my mother’s watching. My father’s watching. My grandmother’s watching.”

She said even her ex-boyfriend would begrudgingly watch. Mari had mentioned several times Brazil’s divisive state of politics after the recent election between Lula and Bolsonaro. The World Cup had given her a simple and concrete place for positive energy during a couple of turbulent months.

Like many Brazilians, Mari considers the jewelry-bedazzled Neymar a little cheesy. Yet she didn’t care who’d scored when Brazil notched the first goal in extra time. Mari flashed the biggest smile of glee I’d seen since arriving in Spain. Croatia’s goal to even it with three minutes left in extra time caused a dozen guys who’d been relatively quiet all game to rise from their seats and roar. More of that followed in the penalty kicks that sent Brazil home. The family and the woman in the Brazil flag faded before saying goodbye. Not long after, it rained for a week straight, casting a certain tone on our exit from Spain. One of deflation.

On the plane trip home to New York, a day before the World Cup semifinals, I watched a documentary on the late Argentinian star Diego Maradona. His creativity, technical skill and imaginaton on the field captivated my attention. His life story also inspired me. From the slums of Buenos Aires, Maradona was plucked at 15 years old into professional soccer. Perhaps his impoverished origin is why he chose to leave a top team like Real Barcelona after two years for Naples in the Serie A league. Naples in the South was considered the sewer of Italy by fans from Northern cities like Milan and Juventus. These Northern fans actually sang chants and made signs to this effect during games.

Maradona, then, became not only the savior for the soccer club — but all of Naples.

While watching, I couldn’t help but think of Buffalo and the Bills. O.J. in the 1970s. Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith in the 1980s and 1990s. Josh Allen and Stephon Diggs now. They’ve become legends if not gods. The Bills would be playing the Dolphins on Sunday. I still hadn’t sold my tickets yet.

At several points in the Maradona documentary, the players in the locker room chant and sing after games as passionately as fans in the crowd. Maradona and his teammates show no signs this is an act for the cameras.

I didn’t find this passion in Spain. It’s there, somewhere, but I couldn’t find it quickly enough. I wonder if my story in Spain and learning Spanish is over. What about becoming a real soccer fan? In many ways, I feel like I’m in extra time now, trying to find my way to another goal.

Real education, I suppose, is learning that so many things in life are different than what you’ve come to expect when viewing at a distance; what do we do with this knowledge?

Maradona wasn’t always a hero in Italy.

“When I arrived in Naples I was welcomed by 85,000 people,” he said in the documentary. “When I left, I was alone. I left quietly.”

Actually, his wife Claudia says she helped him box his belongings and move.

The opponents we faced — job disappointment, health issues, lack of time and money to enjoy the city — didn’t allow the victory we’d sought in Spain. Elsewhere, though, we’d continue the search for our beautiful game.

For Grant Wahl and those who have died while on the job for World Cup 2022
For my students in Seville, Spain
For Mari

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