I take a while to warm up to people. An awkward force-field emerges when I meet new people. I’m not anti-social, but the thought of approaching strangers fills me with dread. At 15, I discovered that my sociability was strangely selective. I was visiting my sister in London for the summer. It was my first trip to another country and my first time travelling alone. For two weeks I happily explored London, solo, checking sites off my bucket list. After a while, the excitement waned; I became inexplicably irritable.
At that age, I usually spent every day of every week, playing football near my home with a dozen players for company. Even when I didn’t, my football and the goal-posts were companions enough. That’s what I missed in London. The solution seemed simple—buy a football.
The next day, it was a sunny afternoon when I made my way to Hyde Park, juggling a ball on the Tube. I found an empty patch, set up my goalposts with stones, and started my solo run-about. The world made sense again and I felt alive. Twenty minutes later, I saw a group of people playing a game nearby; suddenly I wasn’t so pleased. I looked at them longingly. Then I counted the players. Eleven. They appeared to be one short. Perhaps I could join them? A mocking voice in my head recognised that it would actually involve talking to them. What if that last player was away for a few minutes? What if they thought me strange? I was like a 12-year-old with a crush. But the urge to play made me walk towards them and wait near a goalpost until the keeper noticed me. “May I join you guys?”, the words escaped me. He consulted the rest of the group. They agreed.
I spent an hour playing with them. By the end, I had 11 new friends, joking, swapping football stories, discussing last season’s FA Cup final. I left Hyde Park feeling like I’d been sky-diving. I returned the next day, and the next week, and every day until I returned to India. I played with a group of Nigerians, joined a local school team at practice, and even picnicked with some Turks after an hour under the sun. Just like that, I had discovered a portal to new companions who shared a patch of grass with me, and treated me as a friend.
I took my lesson back to Mumbai and tested it out at Juhu beach. It worked just fine. I slowly became a social footballing animal. Within a few months, I had played with pretty much every group of regulars on the beach, from the local fishing community, who played absurd (but fun) 20-a-side games, to a family spanning three generations that still plays every Sunday. Over the years, I have kicked about with complete strangers in Pune, Goa and even Kuala Lumpur, and each time it’s given me the same welcome feeling.
At the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, I used football as a way to make friends without actually playing the game. Hopping across pubs and fan parks, I used my Dutch jersey and national flag as a ticket to conversation. Though I would leave home alone, two hours later, I’d find myself drinking over a game, once with a large family from Eindhoven, patiently taking relationship advice from the grandparents. The World Cup final was a bitter disappointment, with Spain beating the Netherlands, but I had Maarten, my fan park friend to share my sorrow. I experienced international football in its simplest form, with a five-a-side game on the beach with people from five different countries, and even talked my way into an underground “action soccer” tournament at a dingy warehouse in Durban.
Along with my passport, football boots are usually at the top of my travel checklist, no matter where I go. I still hesitate to approach strangers for directions when I’m lost, but football is my ice-breaker. Millions like me across the globe, find football a great excuse to travel, to explore different cultures and meet new people, because it’s just so effortless to fit in. People theorize about six degrees of separation, but you’ll realize that all separation is trivial when you can come together so easily with the beautiful game. Football is a great excuse to travel.
Appeared in the July 2012 issue as “Kicking Around The World”.