Away Game: Why Watching the World Cup Made Me a Better Parent & Traveler

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Watching the world cup as we travel has made me a better dad…and possibly a better world citizen.

I was fairly ambivalent about the international spectacle for most of my life. Then my son became a huge fan, so I decided to become one too.

Watching the World Cup in various places as we’ve traveled has proven to be a bonding experience I was looking for, and a way for us all to learn more about the people we share the planet with. But you don’t have to travel to reap the benefits.

Watching the World Cup Made Me a Better Parent & Traveler

Watching the World Cup Made Me a Better Dad

“Ok, Boss. I’ll be waiting at 4 am.” Dede takes another drag off his clove cigarette and pushes a long, disheveled lock of hair behind his ear. “You want breakfast or just tea?” A wild peacock bleats a mating call from the jungle behind me as I sop the sweat from my face and consider tomorrow’s early-morning meal.

I give Dede our orders: black tea, mie goreng, and chopped papaya. Then I confirm everything once more before we shake hands. It’s 2014 and we’re in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia, a remote village near a wildlife preserve close to the northern edge of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. Dede isn’t our guide, and we aren’t sorting out transport or an early morning hike. In fact, we had just returned from an eight-hour trek — my clothes were still soaked and my legs still wobbling.

Dede works at a nearby guesthouse, and they have a bootleg satellite link for watching the World Cup. The following morning at 4 AM Sumatra time, Japan would play Greece in a qualifying match, and my son is dying to watch it. Having grown up in Tokyo and being completely nuts about soccer,my son’s nascent identity was completely wrapped up in that game. That’s why I arranged for Dede to help us out when that game started live.

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Watching the World Cup for Global Perspectives

watching the world cup
Traveling can teach you patience. It can teach you gratitude, too. But there’s something about watching the World Cup — whether you’re traveling or not — that opens a unique door to the world. International competitions can connect you with all sorts of people.

Don’t get me wrong. Big sports competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup bring out some of the worst in people, as well. Greed, vice, corruption, and nationalism all rise to the surface during global sports events. And believe me, I’m no fan of FIFA, who runs the show (crass but hilarious analysis here).

Yet there’s something about the international element of it all that I think is good my kids…and maybe yours too. This goes double for anyone who lives in insular countries known for fearing the outsider.

From Like to Love

Like many Americans, I played soccer as a kid. I was good enough to make the high-school team, but only just. Then once I left for college, I dropped the sport, preferring to watch basketball on the couch…if I watched sports at all.

Once I started traveling, the World Cup became a way to meet people. In 1998, I screamed with French backpackers in Thailand. Four years later, I was living in Tokyo the year that Korea and Japan co-hosted the competition. The next two World Cups I barely remember…basically because I didn’t care enough (or have friends who cared enough) to keep up.

I liked soccer. Or football. Whatever. No matter what you call it, I liked watching it. I really did, but not overly so. I define “overly so” as waking at 3 am to watch a match.

Nurturing His Passion

Watching the World Cup Made Me a Better Parent & Traveler
My boy is another story. He’s obsessed. He keeps up with the players and the stats. He knows who’s the favorite and who’s been traded.

And he loves to play, as well. He played on teams in Japan, and then as we’ve traveled since 2013, he’s joined teams in nearly everywhere we’ve lived. He played for a local youth league in Chiang Mai. Then he played on three teams in Malaysia. When we moved to Spain, he played for 3rd-Division FIFA teams in Valencia, where we lived for nearly two years.

After we left Spain, we caught matches in Borneo, in Lombok, and in Kuala Lumpur. With many games, there came new interactions with locals or fellow travelers. It’s an easy way to start a conversation: with rafting guides, with scuba instructors or even local surfers.

It’s also a chance to look up places on the map. To see what countries border them. To pay a little more attention when that country’s name shows up in a news headline.

At the time, we were using apps like Stack the Countries to teach geography. We were also using the News-O-Matic app for current events. Watching the World Cup brought the names and faces of nations to our lips easier. Knowing the names and seeing the faces of people from various countries also helped make all of this education more relevant.

Watch the World Cup with your kids, and when you do:

  • Talk about where the country is: what part of the world is it? What language(s) do they speak? Who are their neighbors?
  • Talk about the culture: What do they eat? What are they famous for? What are the typical stereotypes of people from that country or that part of the world?
  • Look for them in the news, but don’t only look for headlines (the news often reports only on problems)

Watching the World Cup Means Early Mornings

Bukit Lawang mosquito net Watching the World Cup Made Me a Better Parent & Traveler
The alarm rang at 3:15 am, and I staggered to my feet. The kids looked so peaceful sleeping under the mosquito net, but I needed to get the boy soon up or he’d freak. “We have to watch all the pre-game analysis,” he had specified. Okaaaay…

We stepped out into the dark to the sounds of the rainforest. The trees rustled overhead. It was probably macaques: a fearless, thieving species of monkey. Two days prior, one of them had robbed me as I laid in a hammock reading. He pounced, hissed, and then grabbed the bag of crackers I was eating. Then he leaped onto a neighboring roof and stared at me while he ate.

If those bastards were in the trees above me then, there would be no snacks to pilfer this time. No sir. All they’ll be greeted with is blinding light from our headlamps.

The boy was up, dressed and by my side in seconds. We put on our headlamps and locked the door behind us. The only sound we heard now was the gurgling river and geckos on the hunt for bugs.

Walking out that night for the game, I wasn’t aware that it would be a sea change in how I approached the sport or to my parenting in general. I left our bungalow grumbling, but returned with a mission: don’t just watch soccer with your son. Get into it. Put down your phone and ask questions. He’s into it, so I’m going to be into it, too.

This applies to whatever my kids are into.

Watching the World Cup in Mexico

Mexico world cup Watching the World Cup Made Me a Better Parent & Traveler
Now it’s World Cup time again. The games are in Russia, and we’re in Mexico. The national team is doing well so far and the locals here in San Miguel de Allende are going nuts. As I write, the boy is in Japan visiting his grandparents in Osaka, but he’s still getting up at 3 am to watch various nations battle it out.

He’s into it, and now I’m into it, too. When his fascination with World Cup started, I acted more “into it” than I actually was. I didn’t fake it too hard, though — the boy could see right through it. But I faked it until I actually looked forward to the games and knew a little about each team.

I want to enjoy what my kids enjoy, and I want to enjoy it with them. That’s always been easy with our girl. Her love of art and music comes straight from me. We were spending afternoons in galleries and going to music festivals since she was five. But the boy’s sports obsession was foreign to me, and I had to work at it.

I don’t think that you have to be a super fan of everything your kids are into. After all, half of those interests may be ephemeral in the first place. That said, I don’t think you can fully support a child’s passion without having some interest and knowledge about it yourself — genuine or otherwise.

Studying Up: Watching the World Cup

Bukit Lawang world cup. Watching the World Cup Made Me a Better Parent & Traveler
After a ten-minute walk through the village, we’re at Dede’s place again — one hot tea for me, one cup of Milo for the boy. Fruit and fried noodles on the way.

Turns out that we weren’t the only ones getting up early. Sitting at the tables next to us that morning were travelers from France, Germany, Singapore, and Israel.

The TV signal isn’t clear, but it’s good enough. The pre-game analysis is in Bahasa, naturally, but that doesn’t stop us. You see, before that cursed monkey disturbed me, I had spent some time in the aforementioned hammock reading up on the Japan and Greece lineup.

Thanks to the Pocket app, I had a dozen articles and blog posts to read about both teams. I knew that Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni depended too much on striker Keisuke Honda and that Greece superstar Konstantinos Mitroglou had been plagued by injury. I knew that Shinji Kagawa’s place at Manchester United might hinge on his performance in these next few games. Don’t ask me much more, because that’s all I remember. In fact, I’m not sure if everything I just wrote is accurate.

But you know what? It was enough to have a conversation with the boy and to talk with the other fans in attendance. We did our own analysis and commentary, and it was just what he wanted.

The game ended in a tie, but both teams advanced to the next round, where they were eliminated. The boy seemed ok with it. After flying back to Penang, we bought a World Cup bracket and put our predictions on the wall of our apartment. We woke before dawn for some matches and huddled on the sofa. For others, we met with French, British, Malaysian and Filipino friends at a nearby sports bar.

Bonding Through the World Cup

Watching the World Cup Made Me a Better Parent & Traveler
Kids need validation as much as attention. At least mine do. They’re much more likely to share what they’re passionate about if I’m interested, too. Occasionally, they’ll share even more if I seem to share that passion in any way. I’m still not a soccer fanatic, but I love it enough to get excited about matches. And my son gets to teach me about the teams and games. I love that.

The boy had been playing for eight or nine years already, but it wasn’t until 2014 that I realized that I should learn to love the sport, too. This kid’s passion is soccer, and so part of my job as a parent is to be passionate, too.

As we watch this World Cup, I text with my parents and brother in Atlanta. With my sister in California. With my wife and son in Japan. We’re all watching the same thing. And we’re all enjoying it together — making predictions, cracking jokes, talking trash. And I’m happy. The World Cup made our lives a little closer.

That night in the rainforest seems like a long time ago. The team we rooted for didn’t make the finals, but sharing that game with my son — in the jungle, long before dawn — was all the victory I needed.

Do You Watch the World Cup with Your Kids?

Who are you rooting for? Do you and your kids like the same teams? Do you incorporate educational or cultural elements into watching the World Cup? If so, how?


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  1. So true. We are not passionate about sport, even our boys are not, but we watch the World Cup, Tour de France and Olympics whenever they come around. We enjoy them for their international flavour. My moment with my eldest came with Harry Potter. I was anti HP as I was a huge fan of Lord of the Rings but then my son got crazily into HP. So suddenly I found myself reading every book, watching every film, going to HP quiz nights and visiting HP sites when we travelled. It turned into a great adventure, motivated by his passion – not mine. But now we have embraced it as a family. I will never know it all to the depth of knowledge he does but I enjoy seeing that glimpse into his mind and his world <3