There are no shortage of ways to get more in touch with the local culture when traveling or living abroad. A country’s food, music, theatre, and day to day life all give you plenty of insight into a country’s personality and way of life.
Too often when touring though, people neglect to check out one of the things that epitomizes a country’s pride, passion, and competitive spirit – sport. Whether it’s the national league or just a bit of a kick around in the park on a sunny afternoon, viewing (or even participating) in some of the locally loved sports is a great way to really experience a country.
Going Large – Must See Sporting Events
If money isn’t a problem and you really want to experience the festival atmosphere, then getting out to see one of the big national sporting events is a truly remarkable experience. It’s hard not to get caught up in the pride and passion when the Liverpool fans start singing You’ll Never Walk Alone or when you witness your first haka live and realize just how terrifying it really is.
While we’re not all going to be lucky enough to be able to afford tickets to El Classico or the Superbowl, saving up and experiencing one of these events is truly a once in a lifetime experience. While many might plan their trips to see a sight like the Taj Mahal or participate in an event such as the Running of the Bulls – there’s just as much appeal, at least to me, in following the Socceroos to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil or being on hand to see a Manchester derby someday.
Below are just a few of the big sporting events that any sporting fan should try and attend before they hang up the ol’ traveling boots. And even non sporting fans should look at experiencing the atmosphere at one of these events if the opportunity ever arises.
Attend a World Cup game
They don’t call football (soccer for my American friends) ‘The World Game’ for nothing. Football captures the imagination of people all over the world and its showpiece event is a fantastic melting pot of cultures and ethnicities that is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Even a game between footballing ‘minnows’ will be an unforgettable experience, but getting to see your own country play is something else entirely.
The next three World Cups offer up three vastly different host nations: dream destination Brazil, geographically varied Russia, and steaming hot Qatar in 2022.
A Football Derby
While going to a World Cup might be too much of a commitment (and only a possibility every four years) – there’s almost always a chance to attend a quality football derby while on the road. A derby is a match between two neighboring teams or, occasionally, just two teams with a fierce rivalry. The biggest rivalry in Australian football, for example, is between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory.
A few other famous footballing rivalries include the Manchester Derby (Manchester City vs. Manchester United), the Merseyside Derby (Everton vs. Liverpool), the Bavarian derby (Bayern Munich vs. Nuremberg), Le Classique (Olympique de Marseille vs. Paris Saint-Germain), the Derby d’Italia (Juventus vs. Inter), the Old Firm derby (Rangers vs. Celtic), El Clasico (Real Madrid vs. Barcelona), and Superclasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate in Argentina. But there’s certainly no shortage of big derbies – and most countries with a professional league will have a long history of famous rivalries.
Just be warned that, even moreso than international football, these derbies can set tempers on edge. If you do wish to attend a big derby, be aware that crowd violence is not unknown.
State of Origin
The showpiece event for Rugby League is the annual tri-series between New South Wales and Queensland. Taking place over the course of two months during the middle of the season (winter in Australia) these three clashes are suitably epic battles between two states with a fierce rivalry. State of Origin fever captures both states during this time, and if you’re ever asked if you’re a maroon or a blue – you’d better have your answer ready.
My good friend Heather from No Place Like Oz wrote a fantastic piece on her State of Origin experience that’s worth checking out.
Seen around the world every year, the NFL Superbowl is the final game of the epically long American Football season and pits the two best teams in the country against one another at a (usually) neutral venue. Boasting the kind of crowds and pageantry that only association football (soccer) can rival, the Superbowl is worth it for the half-time show alone – let alone the doubtlessly entertaining battle between the nation’s finest.
Rugby World Cup
Like its much more well known football relative, the Rugby World Cup does a great job of capturing the heights and minds of all involved. While it doesn’t have the same number of participant nations to draw on as ‘soccer’, the Rugby World Cup does boast an impressive array of intimidating hakas and exciting, free flowing rugby. While 2011’s edition is taking place in rugby obsessed New Zealand, you could start planning for an entirely new experience in 2015 when the World Cup moves to Japan.
I’ve listed a few of the events that I find fascinating, but obviously there’s no shortage of others worth checking out. Some might find the tradition of Wimbledon appealing or they might have daydreamed about seeing a WWE event live. Others might want to be on hand for the Tour de’France or a surf classic. Regardless of how you do it, sports offer up a great insight into a country while also being a good way to meet people and enjoy a unique night (or day) out.
A Safer, Cheaper Option
Can’t afford a ticket to one of the big events? You don’t need to bankrupt yourself to see what the local sporting scene has to offer. Get out and see a local league game and you’ll still get a great experience. While Australian sporting events might run you around $25-$40 for a ticket and more for the overpriced stadium food – a baseball match in Korea comes in at under 10,000 won ($10) and you can bring as much food and beer in as you’d like!
A live AFL game is a thing to behold, and while I’ve not yet made it to one, it’s on my 2011 resolutions to get out and see the Sydney Swans so I can judge aerial ping pong in person. Yeah, not an AFL fan…
There’s something very tribal about league sport. Men with painted faces carrying around their equally decked out children; cheerleaders; vendors selling all manner of local cuisine; and the surge of anticipation as a try-line is approached or a shot is taken. The festival atmosphere of a good sporting event can’t be recreated anywhere else, and needs to be experienced to be appreciated fully.
Want to make friends in your new (however temporary) home? Show out in the local team’s colors, introduce yourself to some of the natives, and watch as they welcome you in with open arms as they educate you on the game, their team, and why the other guys are cheating cowards.
Sure, watching a sport is a great experience, but why not get up off your backside and get involved as well? Obviously you won’t be able to just waltz into the starting lineup for Arsenal or the English cricket tea (unless you’re South African, haha) – you’ll rarely have to look far to find a pick-up game in a local park or quiet street.
Some of my most memorable travel experiences have involved just playing some sports with the locals. Tossing a pigskin around with Americans or flailing wildly while playing beach volleyball in Fiji both gave me a good workout, a good time, and a better understanding of the locals.
What sporting events have you managed to attend while on the road? Any good stories to share?
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