How sport traditions around the world enlighten our travel - from Old Firm derbies to ‘Tapal Tea’ moments
Forget food or sight-seeing: travelling the world by sporting traditions offers a vision of cultures unattainable any other way
When comparing travel stories, one might philosophise on how the beautiful spiced dishes of the Indian subcontinent differ from the shrimps on the barbie you can enjoy down under. Or how the luscious green of Ireland compares to the arid conditions of the Sahara Desert. Food and landscape dominate discussions of travel. But not for everyone.
Mention to me you’ve had the privilege of visiting a certain area of the world, and my immediate thought runs to what sporting event you could (and obviously should) have attended.
If you’re lucky enough to visit India or Pakistan, for example, but didn’t attend a cricket match - I would consider that blasphemy. And it’s not simply the sport itself, but all of the rituals and routines that go along with it: if you’ve travelled to America and not attempted to get on the famed NBA Kiss Cam* when watching the Lakers take on the Phoenix Suns, trot back to the States for a second try.
*for the uninitiated, a Kiss Cam is when members of the audience are filmed and projected onto a jumbotron TV locking lips, for the whole stadium’s entertainment.
But this slightly curious preoccupation when it comes to travel got me wondering: how are different sport events around the world perceived by outsiders? What are we missing out on in the UK?
Drinking while others exercise: a global cultural institution?
Let’s look at a huge cultural tenet of attending sports games in the UK: drinking. When events take place in the UK, the question of booze is not usually too far behind: days out at the tennis are paired with drinking copious amounts of Pimms. Nights at the snooker or darts often linked with huge bender (evidently for some of the players as well if snooker’s new champion Luca Brecel is to be believed). Watching the footie is done down at the pub, pint in hand.
How does this compare to global sporting events? Are people drinking themselves silly abroad?
Consider cricket. England’s seven match T20 series took place in Pakistan last autumn. There, the series was partnered with tea company and the camera would often pan across to see fans enjoying a “Tapal Tea moment”. If the same event was happening in England the camera would capture a group of exceptionally inebriated men (although this gender disparity is diminishing) building the biggest plastic-pint-glass tower they could.
Whatever your feelings on binge drinking, one thing is certain, the noise created by the fans in Pakistan was far more overpowering than anything ever heard in the UK.
The beautiful game and its ugly fans
But of course it is not just whether one opts for tea or Tennent's that can determine experiences at a fixture. If we move away from the stereotypically ‘civilised’ sport of cricket to the tribalism of football the actions of fans are quite a different ball game.
NationalWorld’s own Katrina Conaglen (a New Zealander) recalls her first Scottish football match where fans were loudly, proudly singing profanities to their own players: “I was genuinely horrified when I went to my first Hibs game and the crowds chanted a song calling all the players c**ts - to the team they were supporting. Considering the evening evolved to include hot bovril (no, please, thanks) and a truly wretched steak pie it was a real crash course in Scottish Culture.”
Katrina’s experience is certainly no isolated incident (excluding the hot bovril - we know better) when it comes to the phenomena of the apparently beautiful game. Impassioned and often aggressive fans are of course not just limited to our shores.
Our podcast whizz Kelly Crichton was amazed by the experience of watching footie in South America, where the fans provide as much entertainment as the players:
“We went to a football match in Buenos Aires between River Plate and All Boys. Having gotten slightly lost on the way (we were warned to not do that due to serious risk of getting caught in crossfire between fans) a local fan took us under his wing, getting us to our seats safely. What followed was an absolute theatre of fandom - two hours of singing, chanting, drums, music - it was relentless! I watched the fans and my husband watched the match. It was an utterly brilliant (if scary initially) experience”.
A beacon of stability and hope
Aside from the spectacle and fun, sport can be an incredibly powerful and oftentimes political tool. Its traditions around the world often mirror that of the country’s bureaucratic, economic and civic landscape. For Brazilians, for example, this has very much been the case. In a country riven with political turmoil and incredible wealth disparity footballers - the legend that is Pele in particular - have provided a point of stability and a beacon of hope for the next generation. No matter the terror of the news, children can be found playing football in the street. They turn on the telly and thrill to the skills of Neymar, Pele's spiritual successor. Football in the UK is an important entertainment and business- in Brazil, it is a way of life.
Finger-pulling, bull-fighting and goat-racing
Beyond the traditions, of course, are sports specific to certain countries themselves. If one were to travel to Bavaria of Austria, for example, one could witness the great championship of Fingerhakeln - competition stemming from times where disputes were allegedly settled in countries of the Alps by finger-pulling. (Curious about rules of play? Two competitors matched in age and weight sit at a specifically-designed table across from one another and pull at a small leather band with one finger until one player has pulled the other across)
While in Trinidad and Tobago, tourists are widely encouraged to spectate the mighty goat-racing competitions on Easter Tuesday.
Goat-racing is thought to have originated in Buccoo, Tobago, where it place the day after the local elite had participated in horse-racing on Easter Monday. It was developed as a “poor man’s equivalent” but has since become an internationally acclaimed festival with other countries such as Uganda and Tanzania now setting up their own races.
And, of course, one of the most infamous sports local to a specific culture bull-fighting. Practised in Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru, the blood sport of bull-fighting has been in existence since prehistoric times and was reputedly a trend that once extended the entire Mediterranean coast.
Its origins are believed to have centred around the ritual sacrifice of sacred animals through direct or symbolic combat but it is now an iconic and intrinsic part of Spanish culture. The sport is (quite rightly) coming under increasing attack from animal rights activists, a problematic assault for the Latina world whose culture is so intrinsically linked to the history and swashbuckling passion of the blood sport.
Going abroad? Go to a match!
Whether you’re partaking in a table tennis tournament in Germany with several steins of beer nearby, as our Money editor Henry Sandercock has done; enjoying a panino outside the Diego Maradona Stadium in Napoli before some Ultras politely ask you to move (as NationalWorld’s Ralph Blackburn recalls), or enjoying the ‘best day of your life’ at a Lucha Libre wrestling competition in Mexico (as described by our Data Investigator editor Harriet Clugston), heading to a sports match overseas is much more than simply an exciting excursion.
Pay attention, and you can learn how the history of an area has impacted its present day culture. It will provide a unique insight into a country’s heritage, traditions and way of life. That, and it's fun. Happy sports-watching!