On my first visit to an Australian Rules Football game in Sydney, I was surrounded by opposing fans.
Amid the tension and fist pumping, I was treated to a walkthrough of the rules, two cheese sandwiches, Sydney and Melbourne tips, and a handful of bad dances when the Swans or Bombers scored. I’d finally found a conversation that hadn’t been triggered by a transaction in a shop, beers in a bar or my overly enthusiastic tourist babble. Organic or forced – it worked.
And sport can do this. As cultures place huge value and satisfaction on their sports and teams, you’re bound to find opinion, honesty and local knowledge among the stands. A sporting event can be a haven of homegrown information and experience for travellers, no matter the size of the venue.
Here are a handful of places around the world that typify the connection between sport and travel:
Football – Buenos Aires
Outside of the world of soccer, travellers might not be overly aware of the historical and passionate South American derby that flares up in Buenos Aires at least twice a year. River Plate vs. Boca Juniors is a heated affair that epitomises the importance of soccer to Argentinians. A trip to Boca’s La Bombonera stadium or River Plate’s Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti is an unforgettable experience, but getting tickets to the derby is like searching for gold dust. Try heading to game that’s a bit more relaxed.
Cricket – Dharamshala, India
Attending a cricket game in India is like nothing else. Running from the hours of 9am through to bad light, this is a celebration of Indian community. Unlike reserved cricket nations such as England, the majority of fans stay on their feet and party every single minute of the match. Even when your team is losing, friendships rise out of the ashes. It’s a place to let go and enjoy the people around you as much as the action. The beautifully high HPCA ground in Dharamshala also helps.
Muay Thai – Bangkok
From an early age, Muay Thai is practiced by locals in many parts of Thailand to instil a sense of discipline into their lives. It’s a community based sport that gets a lot of bad press due to western amateurs not taking the sport seriously. But in the capital, Lumpini is the perfect place to see highly trained kickboxers exercise their art. With a probable language barrier floating between you and the locals, use the medium of Muay Thai to bring you closer together.
Ice Hockey – Montreal
Ice hockey may not have started on the icy floors of Canada, but it was adopted and developed here. When the NHL was created it was known for being a working man’s sport, and each club projected ideals and national pride through their team to their members. Today, it’s much more diluted and purely entertainment focused, but it’s also a great chance to see Canadian inhibitions drop a little. The Bell Centre in Montreal is the oldest and best place to start.
Hurling and Gaelic football. Two sports you’ve probably never been to see and have no clue what the name suggests. Croke Park in Dublin is the home to these unknown quantities and an amazing experience for any traveller. Meet real Dubliners, travelling fans and get to know each other in a very Irish institution.