When I spent almost a year in Europe after I got out of school, I got seriously into Champions League soccer. Everyone I made friends with was following the league, so I spent a lot of nights out at the bar watching matches, and thus, a California boy with no soccer experience was transformed into a screaming, flag-waving Olympique Lyonnais fan.
It was around that time that I realized how rewarding it was to completely immerse oneself in culture– not just food and language, but sports, and politics, and all of the other things that matter to people on an everyday basis that a mere tourist is shut out of.
In honor of that first season of Champions League, here are seven fun and intense sports that you should dive into if you find yourself in the countries where they are played. It’ll pay off in more than just beers downed– you may just make a lifelong friend or two.
Australia – Australian Rules Football
Australian Rules Football (or just “Aussie Rules”) is played on a modified cricket field, and it a little like a mix between rugby and American Football. The game inherits its lack of pads and “spectacular marking” (creating a human pyramid or other shape in order to block or catch the ball) from Rugby. Unlike American football, the players cannot throw the ball. They must instead “handball,” which is like a volleyball serve, or kick the ball.
Aussie Rules is the most highly attended spectator sport in Australia, making it the best way to take in local sports culture.
India (And Others) – Cricket
Cricket and Baseball share a few traits in common- striking a ball with a bat, but that’s about where the similarities end. Cricket is hugely popular in Australia and Southeast Asia, in particular India and Pakistan.
A Cricket match can last up to five days, so spectating is an endurance sport unto itself. Customs of watching a match vary by region, but generally speaking relaxing with a beer (in countries where alcohol is appropriate) is warranted. In some countries, the Cricket Tea (serving of tea at a cricket match) is part of the spectacle and tradition.
New Zealand – Rugby
In short, Rugby is a tough quasi-football-like game involving 15 players. It is played without pads, and to score is to have made a “try.” A try is essentially crossing the goal line with the ball and touching it to the ground.
Rugby is hugely popular all over the world, particularly in New Zealand. Games can be watched at the pitch itself (duh) or at pretty much any pub in a rugby-loving country.
Ireland – Gaelic Football
Gaelic football is sort of a mix of soccer, rugby, and american football. It’s not terribly popular outside of Ireland, but it is huge there. Interestingly, the popularity of Gaelic football arose as a result of Irish nationalists not wanting to teach “foreign” games like soccer, american football, and baseball. It is thus a relatively new tradition, having been widely popular only since around 1960.
This being Ireland, hit the pub and order a Guinness.
Thailand – Kickboxing
Thai kickboxing, or Muay Thai, is a stand-up striking and kicking sport with an ancient tradition. It’s hugely popular, and big business with promotional and gambling dollars at stake.
Some might find a Muay Thai fight somewhat “raw,” but it’s all part of the fun. There’s plenty of food, alcohol, and other refreshment available. Get into it, pick a fighter, and cheer like crazy!
Mongolia – Wrestling
Wrestling is considered by the Mongolians to be one of the three “manly skills” (the other two being horsemanship and archery). As a result, huge numbers of Mongolians participate in wrestling training, even if they never wrestle competitively. The history of Mongolian Wrestling goes back to Ghengis Khan, and wrestling competitions all include a sculpture of the Khan himself.
If offered Yogurt and milk, you may want to hold off unless you have already acclimated to these foods. If you want to try, remember that Airag, the national drink, is fermented mare’s milk. Feel free to take part in the shouting and cheering, though.
Almost Everywhere – Soccer/Football
Soccer is the one that started it all for me. There are few places in the world that you will not find energetic, die-hard fans willing and thrilled to share their team with you. All you have to do most places around the world is ask for a primer on the team, its players, and join in a little good natured jeering against the opposing team. This will likely make you some very fun friends.
Because soccer played across such a wide geographic area, customs vary. Just go with the flow and follow along with everyone else. Enjoy local food and drink, and don’t be afraid to scream your lungs out.
It’s About Energy, Not How Much You Know
If you’re a spectator at these or any other sports, even if you have no idea what’s going on, don’t be afraid to get involved. Go with the flow, ask questions, and show respect and wonder. It’s easy to make friends because sports is one of the great uniting forces in the world. Every fan of every spot, everywhere in the world, wants to tell you why their sport and their favorite athletes are the best. This is the perfect time to give a friendly smile, nod, and offer to buy them a beverage.
What’s the craziest sport you’ve discovered on your travels? What customs surprised you? Let me know in the comments!