6 mins

The universal language of football

A better knowledge of Premiership footballers would certainly have been useful in Iran


"Who are you going to support now that Brazil is out?” went the conversation at a travel function the other night. I hadn’t quite appreciated until then that Brazil are so many people’s “second team."

Are they the most popular national team in the world? Probably. When visiting Lebanon in 1998 and being struck by the sight of hundreds of colourful flags that dotted the rooftops of Tripoli, I asked my guide, in all innocence, “Is that the Hezbollah flag?” He raised an eyebrow. “No, Brazil! It’s the World Cup next month…” was the response.

It wasn’t the only time I’ve felt embarrassed by my lack of football knowledge. At a dinner thrown by the Malaysia Tourist Board I introduced myself to the guest next to me, and asked who he was. He responded by pointing at the place-name in front of him.

“Sorry, you’ll have to give me a clue,” I admitted. “I used to play for the most popular football team in Malaysia,” he said. I retorted that I knew nothing about Malaysian football, to which he looked at me with disdain, “I mean Manchester United of course,” he growled. Oh dear.

Travel tip: Know your footballers by name!

A better knowledge of Premiership footballers would have certainly been useful in Iran.
Visiting a Holy Shrine in a remote corner of the country a group of male pilgrims came up to me and were desperately trying to communicate. After many attempts and much sign language and laughter, we eventually we found a universal language: "Michael Owen, David Beckham!"

I ran out of names long before they did, and just clapped at each footballer they mentioned, but they were satisfied. With broad grins on their faces, they each shook my hand before I took my leave. It was only the first of many such conversations as I travelled the country.

I’m off to Yemen next week; anyone know who they support? Maybe I’ll ask Paul, the psychic Octopus, who clearly knows much more about football than me. Meanwhile, I’ll get swotting up on the current Manchester United team straightaway...

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