07/18/2014 08:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When The Proper Spelling Of 'Football' Becomes 'Futbol'

A funny thing happened recently at one of the local watering holes in our little Ecuadorian town.

A bunch of Yanks gathered around the television to watch something other than basketball, baseball, or American football.


Watching the World Cup at El Bar in Cotacachi, Ecuador

Photo: Joel Kaplan,

In fact, the World Cup of soccer monopolized the sports watching habits of quite a few North American expats we know for several weeks. It's a good example of what happens when you choose to live in another broaden your horizons, even when it comes to televised sports.

We all had several good reasons to follow soccer (called futbol here) this year... Ecuador made the tournament, as did the U.S., and both made very good showings considering the quality of the competition. Even those of us with no background in or knowledge of soccer quickly got caught up in the spirit of things and picked up the nuances and terminology.


Photo: Joel Kaplan,

A few U.S. and Canadian expats were even exposed as longstanding soccer fans...people who actually knew of and liked the sport before they became expats. They would feign ignorance of soccer's subtleties like the rest of us at first, but would get caught out when it became clear they actually knew how penalty time was calculated and exactly when and why a player was called offside. Even though born and raised in North America, they had somehow acquired a working knowledge of the most popular sport on the planet.

We remember our first year abroad and feeling lucky to find the baseball World Series on a local Latin American channel. It gave us a good feeling being able to follow the Series, even if all the commentary was in Spanish. It was a kind of lifeline to the familiar for a couple of homesick newbie expats.

That was 13 years ago. Watching the start of the World Cup this year, it didn't even occur to us to notice the language of the commentary. Of course it was Spanish, what else would it be?

There were a few jokes comparing soccer to American football, of course. It's hard for someone from the U.S. to sit quietly without comment when they see players skipping up and down the field to warm up. Skipping. What else do they do to warm up? Jump rope? Hopscotch?

And people used to the crushing violence of American football find soccer's diving and flopping hard to take seriously until they realize what an important part of the game's strategy it is. Regularly writhing on the ground in excruciating pain one second and springing up the next to take a free shot puts the credulity of the referees in question. But there were enough actual crashes, crunches, and obvious fouls in this World Cup to please even the most jaded American football fan.

So we all got together to enjoy a sport that, before we became expats, none of us grew up on and few of us knew the rules for, featuring fierce, decades-long rivalries between teams and regions that never included the U.S. or Canada, and full of heroes and villains few of us recognized with names most of us couldn't even pronounce before the tournament started.

It was a wonderful experience, made even more wonderful by the fact that we were joined by a crowd of locals taking advantage of the bar's big screen to view the game. Not only that...the front door of the bar remained open during the games, and by halftime the doorway and sidewalk in front of the bar would be packed with passersby stopping to catch the action.

That's what expat life is really about. At heart it isn't simply moving someplace with better weather and more affordable cost of living. It's experiencing life the way other people in the world experience it. Looking at things from a new point of view. Sampling new tastes, seeing new sights, hearing new music, speaking new languages...and enjoying new sports, even if those sports are old as time for the rest of the world.

Participating in all of that isn't the icing on the cake of being an expat. It IS the cake.

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