What I’ve learned in my travels to Europe and South America in the last couple of years is how refreshing it is to get away from English.
Not being able to understand the banter of language around you is a chance to luxuriate in your own thoughts. You are in a crowd, but not part of it, free of the irritating banality of most conversations.
In a strange land I can sit and be oblivious to whatever the locals are talking about.
In Italy, I am able to listen to the melodic flow of the language as the background music to wherever my mind takes me. French has a similar effect.
In Southern Italy, I also love the way women to talk to men. Something about their tone that is effervescent yet scolding stirs me a deep, innate way. Maybe something ancient in my DNA. But that’s not a story for this space. That’s a story for my therapist.
This story is about soccer. A few nights ago, I escaped English right here in New Jersey, by going to the Real Madrid vs. Atletico de Madrid soccer game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
It was a wonderful event. The parking lot was a festival. Fans waved flags and banners of the teams, with the regal crests of Real Madrid way outnumbers the red, white and blue shield of Atletico. The smell of steaks on the grill and chicken on skewers filled the air. There was plenty of beer, too, but it was happy drinking, the singing kind. In Spanish.
Even though I couldn’t understand what was being said, I saw no chiding or aggression toward people rooting for side or the other.
A lady at the box office told me the language barrier was a problem but the people “were all polite and patient.” Most paid with cash. The lines kept moving.
“I’ll take them over the football fans any day,” she said.
I get that.
Many years ago, I stopped going to pro sports games. The last football game I attended was the Jersey Super Bowl fiasco and that was for work. I say fiasco because New Jersey taxpayers ate all the security and logistics costs and got no benefit. The NFL took everything. They always do. All we got was a black eye because NJ Transit couldn’t handle the crowds coming in from New York.
The time before that, I watched a guy throw an empty Jack Daniels bottle into the crowd backed up at the entrance gate. It was a night game between the Giants and Packers, and liquid courage brought out the worst in people. Fights, cursing, anger. Who needs it?
My last Rutgers game was a couple of years ago, when two recent Rutgers grads embarrassed their school and state and cheapened their degrees by obnoxiously standing the whole game to block the view of the Penn State fans behind them. When security was called, the visitors from Pennsylvania were told these clowns had “a right” to stand, even it interfered with their right to enjoy the game they traveled seven hours to see. Welcome to Jersey.
These are just two examples of the stupidity you encounter going to our games. Let’s not even begin talk about the intrusive, assaultive stadium “entertainment” which blares through all the non-action voids left by commercial breaks.
In any language, our games have no flow. They’re boring. Momentum and pace are stolen by Geico and Bud Light.
And this why I’ve come to appreciate soccer and its 45 glorious minutes of uninterrupted play. Of relative quiet.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been to Red Bulls Stadium twice to watch international matches. While the crowds were intensely partisan, they seem to chant, sing and cheer for their team, rather than tear down the opposition.
I know that’s a Pollyanna thing to say. I know it ignores the soccer hooliganism and racism that plagues the sport in some countries. But I didn’t see it here in New Jersey, even in games where national pride was on the line.
One game was between the Lisbon-based professional club Benfica and the Italian team Fiorentina, out of Florence. A couple weeks earlier we saw a doubleheader between the national teams of Bermuda and Nicaragua, and Haiti and Costa Rica.
Two of those games had questionable, game-changing calls and were decided in the closing minutes. But with all that passion -- extreme elation or bitter disappointment -- no one got led out by security and the Harrison police on the perimeter seemed to have nothing to do. The crowds were peaceful as they moved out, which is language we can all appreciate.
The same was true at MetLife. Real Madrid are the Yankees of Spain, with 600 million fans worldwide. Atletico are the Mets, the perennial also-rans in a two-team market. As a result, it felt like a home game for Real Madrid, they so outnumbered the Atletico fans.
So when Atletico jumped out to a quick-three goal lead, then extended it to 6-0 at one point, you’d expect things to get ugly. At the very least, you’d expect see the stadium drain out of the Real Madrid throng.
Neither happened. Everyone stayed, singing, chanting and cheering Real Madrid’s late, futile goals.
With minutes left it occurred to me the people weren’t there to only cheer their teams. They were there to celebrate their game -- their universal game, which somehow brings international crowds together more than it tears them apart.
A game that is a common language.