The Expat Football Life
They say love is the universal language, but in our increasingly globalized world it seems more and more that football (known as soccer, of course, in the U.S.) is replacing this. You can be in some of the most off-the-beaten-path places on the planet and possess no native knowledge of the local language, yet a quick utterance of “Manchester United” or “David Beckham” will elicit a smile and often an invitation to share a drink or a meal. Besides its role as an ice-breaker, football can have other more tangible benefits if you enjoy playing the game and are moving to live and work in another country.
Once you have made the decision to live overseas, one of the last things you may have thought about is keeping fit or playing sports, but it can have great benefits both for health and for developing your social network. Many of the world’s developing countries do not have the recreational facilities you may take for granted if you live in North America or Europe. For example, if you are fond of cycling or jogging, many large cities do not have parks friendly to these pursuits or do not have parks at all. And forget about cycling on the roads if you value your life. Traffic rules such as giving way or looking before you turn are frequently ignored, especially in Indonesia and Thailand. Gyms are everywhere, but if you are like me and find gyms both somewhat soulless and boring then what are the alternatives?
Thankfully, many countries with large expat populations have organized teams for most universally popular sports, such as basketball, cricket, rugby, and sometimes softball and baseball. The most popular sport in terms of number of participants who actually play is football, and in this article I will briefly talk about expat football in Asia.
When deciding which team to join do a little research and maybe email the team manager first or look at the league table on the website. By so doing you can gauge how serious the team takes their football and whether their focus is on the game itself or more on post-game social life. If you join the right team for your level of ability you will have a more enjoyable experience. There exist teams for all abilities, even those catering to players who have literally never kicked a ball in their lives.
Joining a football team is one way to combat the loneliness common to many expatriates at some point, to meet local people who have the same interests as you, and to meet fellow expats—some of whom may have often lived in the country for a longer period of time and therefore may offer you valuable information on the do’s and don’ts of your new home. I have lived and worked in three countries other than my homeland (Thailand, Korea, and Indonesia) and each time I have sought out the local expat football league. The teams in these leagues offer a readymade social scene, an excuse to keep fit, a chance to travel, job opportunities, valuable advice, and most importantly a chance to make lifelong friends. Some may question why you would travel to exotic destinations and then seek out people coming from a similar background, but I have often found that I am more inclined to engage in the local culture and life if I can also escape to familiar things every now and then. And often teams include locals, so it is also common for many of the expat men to have married local women or to come from backgrounds which may be very unfamiliar to you.
For example, my team in Indonesia consists of players from England, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, U.S.A., Australia, Cameroon, and of course Indonesia. This has enabled me to learn a lot about among other things; different religions, senses of humor, competitiveness, and the meaning of friendship. Most of all, you will likely have unforgettable experiences, such as a game in Indonesia where my team played a village outside of Jakarta and before kick-off a group of buffalos had to be herded off the pitch. The loudspeaker of the local mosque urged everyone to come and watch and the locals did so dutifully by the hundreds, cheering and clapping every time one of the foreigners made a mistake. We did so frequently, even while losing 4-1, much to their enjoyment. The halftime refreshment of freshly opened green coconut made for an interesting change from Gatorade.
Expat Football in Thailand
Although, there are thousands of expats scattered throughout Thailand, the main focus on football is in Bangkok. There is a well-established league called the Bangkok Casuals, which consists of three divisions and in which teams play weekly. Many of the teams are sponsored by a particular pub or restaurant. The leagues have their match reports and results printed in the Bangkok Post and one of the teams, the German Allstars, also organizes a yearly international tournament which draws teams from across Asia. In the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand there is a team called the Farangutans, a motley collection of nationalities who play regular games against Thai teams from the region and who are sponsored by the U.N. Irish Pub. There are also teams in Phuket and Pattaya. Phuket also hosts an international six-a-side tournament for amateur teams.
Expat Football in Korea
The Super Sunday Football League (SSFL) is another long-established expat league, which as the name suggests, plays on Sundays with seasons beginning in the spring and autumn. The teams are divided into two divisions and mainly operate out of Seoul. Each team has a home field but finding one with grass rather than packed sand is a nearly impossible. Many teams have a heavy Canadian and American presence, although there are teams which tend to recruit players on the basis of nationality, such as Ireland. The league is well-managed and has a website with team profiles and contacts as well as a forum where new players may post their details and wait for teams to approach them.
Expat Football in Indonesia
There are expat teams in Bali and Surabaya but for an organized league you will have to be in Jakarta. The Jakarta International Football League (JIFL) has been operating for a number of years and has a good mix of teams. The top team, the Wanderers, has in their ranks a former Cameroon International who played in the 1994 World Cup. Other teams like the Lions, for whom I play, tend to consist of players whose closest experience to the World Cup is watching it on television. Games are played on Saturday afternoons or Wednesday evenings, and other than two teams built around players from Japan and Korea, most teams have a wide mix of nationalities playing with them and are also required to include Indonesians. Every year there is also the World Cup 6’s tournament which organizes players into teams according to their nationality. The teams then compete for a replica copy of the real World Cup. The tournament gets extensive press coverage, and this year’s final pitted the U.S.A. against Indonesia. Despite the presence of the American cheerleaders, Indonesia won. England, the team for whom I played, was predictably knocked out in the earlier rounds.