Human biology senior Saad Habib doesn’t speak Spanish.
Normally that would be a problem for someone living among Spanish-speaking Hondurans for a week, but for Habib, relating to the people was as easy as kicking a ball — something he’s done since the age of six.
“I made friends with tons of kids there because I could play,” he said. “They were like, ‘Wait, what’s this kid doing? He knows how to play soccer?’ I would go ask them to pass me the ball and do a little trick and I’d make interactions that way.”
On a playground near the health clinic where Habib worked for a week, the children would often spend their days playing soccer. At first they were timid of Habib, but through soccer they became more acquainted with him and started seeking him out to play with them.
“The first day I got there it was a little tough to just jump in and play,” Habib said. “But I would play a little bit, and the next day a kid would come up to me while I was working and be like, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ And he’d introduce me to his other friends, and by the end of the week I was accepted enough to play with the 15 and 16-year-olds, which was kind of cool.”
With a student body of various languages and cultural backgrounds, soccer is a common ground that allows students to build relationships with one another, microbiology senior Mohamed Askar said.
“I’ve met a lot of my friends playing soccer,” Askar said. “MSU has a lot of international students. That one thing that you can just relate to them with is soccer. It opens the door for friends.”
To provide a space where international and domestic students can gather and cheer their teams on in the World Cup, MSU’s Office for International Students and Scholars is hosting big-screen viewing parties in the International Center’s Crossroads Food Court for every game.
Director of the Office for International Students and Scholars Peter Briggs said during the 2010 World Cup more than 350 South Koreans, clad in red and bearing drums, flocked to the food court to support their home country’s team.
Late in the game, Briggs said, the South Korean team scored a goal to tie it up and keep them in the game, electrifying the atmosphere of the food court with eruptions of cheers and celebrations from the South Korean students.
“It was just one of the coolest things to see South Koreans be so proud of their country,” Briggs said.
The culmination of passions, emotions and interest that the World Cup evokes makes it the world’s sporting event, MSU history professor and soccer expert Peter Alegi said.
“It’s the most popular sport in the world and the World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world, without question,” Alegi said. “It unites people across nations, across language barriers. Even people whose countries haven’t qualified want to be part of this incredible spectacle of global culture.”
When asked why soccer is played and appreciated by so many around the world, Alegi said playing the game only requires an open field, a ball and the knowledge of simple-to-understand rules, making participation easy and open to all.
“It’s the (most) democratic game,” Alegi said. “You can be tall, short, thin, not-so thin, black, white, rich, poor — if you have the skill, you can play. That’s the beauty of the sport.”
Although the televised American sports scene is dominated by football, basketball, baseball and hockey, Alegi said it’s a misconception that Americans aren’t as interested in soccer as those abroad.
In terms of what sports Americans are participating in, soccer ranks second, ahead of football, Alegi said. And with greater access to soccer coverage around the world through the Internet, the sport continues to edge closer to rivaling hockey as the fourth most popular sport in America.
Alegi said it’s the intensity and uncertainty of a soccer match that absorbs the audience with breathless attention, inciting them to eruptions of joy or plummeting them into the depths of misery.
Being a low-scoring game where every point carries more gravity, he likened soccer to the last few seconds of a tied-up basketball game.
“It’s a very tense atmosphere, because anything can happen at any moment to completely change the game,” Alegi said. “There are no breaks in the action until halftime. It’s fluid. Without pause. You’re always on edge. It’s that uncertainty, that sporting tension that you’ll experience when you walk into a place and see people absorbed into a game.”