At the table, talk football – The Universal Language

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football - the universal language

The Universal Language

At the table, talk football – the universal language, by John Irving…

An Ecuadorian, a Croatian, a Serb, two Argentines and a Brit are sitting around a table, ready to eat. It sounds like the start of a joke, but it isn’t, or wasn’t.

The year was October 2000, the occasion the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity, presented every year to agriculturists who have excelled at ‘saving the planet’. We were attending a gala dinner for four hundred guests in a mediaeval castle near Bologna. It was one of those sprawling piles with vast banqueting halls and long corridors: by the time the cold fare reached the tables, it was warm.

As an editorial consultant for the Slow Food gastronomic association in Italy, my role that night was as a trait d’ union among my table companions, delegates at the presentation ceremony. But what do you talk about with strangers of such diverse backgrounds? How do you find common ground? How do you involve them all in the conversation? These people were food and wine journalists, so the meal itself was an obvious topic. But another presently emerged that captured their imagination more than the food on their plates. 

It was, of course, football. 

My conclusion after years of Slow Food lunches and dinners, conferences and cocktail parties in Italy and beyond is that football is a universal language. Like Esperanto, only more effective.

One of the Argentinians at the table was María Teresa Morresi, a periodista for La Nación whose family originated from Parma, not far from Bologna. She turned out to be a huge fan of Boca Juniors. She lived with her partner, Nicolas, in the Buenos Aires waterfront neighbourhood of La Boca itself, a stone’s throw from the legendary Bombonera stadium. 

The Ecuadorian supported Barcelona S.C. of Guayaquil, the Serb was a fan of Partizan Belgrade, and the Croatian’s team was Dynamo Zagreb. However, he lived and worked in Italy, where he supported Juventus of Turin, as I do.

The second Argentinian, Dereck Foster, the elder of the party, wasn’t as passionate about football as the others. But no one in Argentina is entirely indifferent to the game, and he admitted to a certain sympathy for River Plate, much to the horror of María Teresa. I’m not saying there was tension between the two of them, but given the deadly rivalry between Boca and River, their rapport was colder than the one between the Serb and the Croat.

Dereck told me he wrote a food column entitled ‘The Gaucho Gourmet’ for the English-language daily The Buenos Aires Herald. He also said he was a descendant of the Foster family, governors in the 16th and 17th centuries of the spectacular Bamburgh Castle. Situated on the Northumbrian coast between Newcastle-on-Tyne and the Scottish border, and used incidentally by Roman Polanski as a location for not one but two films: Cul de sac and Macbeth. Dereck’s ancestors were likely sheep and cattle stealers, like mine (I come from Carlisle, at the other end of the border).

At one point, nature called, and I had to leave the table to go to the bathroom. There I came across a hero of mine, the Catalan writer and journalist Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, also a member of the award jury, having a pee. He was a short, stocky, bespectacled man, balding with a small moustache. I’m shy by nature but, despite the bizarreness of the setting, no way was I going to pass up the chance to introduce myself.

I knew Montalbán was a great culé – a fan of Barcelona, that is – so I decided to talk about futbol. Or at least try. As chance would have it, Montalbán’s blaugranas had beaten Real Madrid’s merengues 2-0 in the superclasico at the Camp Nou the previous Sunday. ‘Congratulaciones por la victoria de Los Blaugranas,’ I said, hoping my attempt at Spanish might contain some semblance of meaning. He glared at me with an air of disdain. ‘What exactly do you want?’ said his eyes.

The atmosphere was uncomfortable. Alone in the bathroom and of all the stalls available, I had chosen the one next to his. Maybe he thought that was strange, as dodgy as my Spanish. But all I wanted to do was pay him a compliment and swap views on the game, which he’d reported on in El Paìs

Maybe I should have plucked up courage and tried my hand with Catalan: something along the lines of ‘Puyols es un dels baluards de l’equip i una columna bàsica de la defensa…’ – a phrase memorised from a history of Barça in Catalan I had on my bookshelves at home. Maybe I would have made more of an impression, or perhaps he wouldn’t have understood that either. Whatever, he pulled up his zip and, puffing and blowing, marched out of the bathroom without a word. A fallen idol.

Back at the table, the Ecuadorian, the Croatian, the Serb and the two Argentinians were connecting through football. Without the Brit. Food – warm mortadella and cold tagliatelle, melting ice cream – came and went but the gastronomes were too locked in their football chat to notice. 

Dereck and María were arguing about the respective merits of Los Milionarios and Los Xeneizes. They agreed about the all-time greatness of Maradona. The Serb and the Croatian were reminiscing about the tremendous pre-breakup Yugoslavia national side, and the Ecuadorian was singing the praises of Alberto Spencer. The evening couldn’t have been more successful.

Torino’s Champagne Comeback

The 2001 Slow Food Award ceremony took place in the Mosteiro Sâo Bento de Vitòria, a magnificent former Benedictine monastery in Oporto. The day after the event, we were taken by train down the Douro Valley for a series of port tastings in the local cellars. At lunchtime, we ended up eating wild boar stew in a restaurant on a hilltop. Among my table companions were two of the award winners: brothers Nestor and Walter Chambi, agronomists and leaders of Chuyma Aru, a Peruvian NGO whose mission is to recover and preserve the traditional crops of the Aymara people on the shores of Lake Titicaca. 

I didn’t know if the Aymaras played football, but I brought up the subject anyway. The brothers’ eyes lit up: exhausted after a transoceanic flight followed by three exhausting days of press conferences and debates, at last, they could sit back and relax. It turned out they were ‘Cerveceros’, Beer Drinkers, fans of Sporting Cristal in Lima, founded by a local brewer, Ricardo Bentín Mujica. 

The brothers spoke about Sporting greats of the past, such as Hector Chumpitaz, Alberto Gallardo and Juan Carlo Oblitas, who I’d seen playing for Peru in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico on TV as a kid in Carlisle. Julio César Uribe was mentioned, a player who I had seen playing in the flesh for Cagliari in Turin.

There was a match in progress as we ate. Not just any match, it was the Turin-derby. In our party was a Torino supporter who, in those pre-Smartphone days, had organised a complex system of text message relays with Turin to keep us updated on the result. At the end of the first half, Juventus were winning 3-0. Frustrated though I was to be sitting in a restaurant on the top of a hill in Portugal miles from anywhere and not in my seat at the Delle Alpi stadium, I ordered champagne for everyone.

With the derby seemingly in the bag, I resumed my conversation with the Chambi brothers. They were keen for news of Norberto Solano, a former Sporting Cristal hero of theirs who was then playing for Newcastle United, my sister’s team. 

We were rudely interrupted by the colleague with the phone. ‘JUVENTUS 3-TORINO 3!’ he shouted. I thought he was winding me up, but he wasn’t. Toro had scored three times in quick succession to draw level at the start of the second half. The drama wasn’t over, and the text messages were coming in thick and fast. With minutes to go, Juventus were awarded a penalty. Alas, Chilean striker Marcelo Salas fired his shot high over the bar, almost into the second tier of the Curva Scirea. When I passed the information on to the Chumbi brothers, they burst out laughing. ‘What do you expect from a Mapuche like Salas?’ said Nestor in a rush of Aymara pride. Walter nodded and chuckled into his wild boar stew.

We only learned the truth about the Salas punt later. Taking advantage of the usual bickering between players and referee that followed the penalty decision, Torino midfielder Riccardo Maspero had sneakily scuffed a hole in the turf behind the spot. That’s why Salas’s effort turned out to be more of a conversion than a penalty kick.

If in doubt, talk Pele

The Chumbi brothers aren’t the only Peruvian football fans I’ve had to entertain. Another was Mario Tapia, agronomist, university professor and government consultant. My job was to take him to dinner at Gemma’s, an old-fashioned trattoria in the Langa hills in southern Piedmont, near the town of Bra where I live. Tapia was an important, seemingly serious man, and I felt slightly in awe of him. Again, the question was: What are we going to discuss?

‘You have the same surname as Carlos Daniel,’ I began tentatively. ‘One of only a few footballers to have played for both River and Boca …’

Tapia’s eyes lit up like the Chumbi brothers’ before him. He was a football connoisseur too. Between a plate of vitello tonnato and a glass of Barolo, he told me how he’d seen Pelé play for Santos in Lima against Universitario in the 1965 Copa de Libertadores. Tapia, a Universitario fan, was disappointed by the result (the Brazilians won 2-1 with a brace by Peixinho) but enchanted by Pelé. ‘As a young man he was the passion of my life, after Gina Lollobrigida,’ he said.

samba speak

What to speak about with Brazilians is a no-brainer. In May 2006, at the ‘Slow Food on Film’ short documentary festival in Bra, I found myself at an official lunch with the Brazilian director Manuel Carvalho. I was a member of the jury and Manuel was competing with O Professor da farinha, a film about manioc flour production.

‘Where are you from in Brazil?’ I asked.


‘Do you like o futebol?’

Sim, certamente.’

‘What’s your team?’


‘I bet you’ve got a girlfriend called Tereza.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘I was joking. I was thinking of the Jorge Ben song, Paìs tropical Sou Flamengo e tenho uma nega chamada Tereza” [I’m a Flamengo fan, and I’ve got a girlfriend called Tereza].’

‘Well, it happens to be true. Or rather, I’ve got a wife and her name’s Tereza.’

He introduced me to the woman sitting beside him: Tereza Corçao, chef and owner of O Navegador, the restaurant at Rio de Janeiro’s Clube Naval rowing club.

‘Pity she’s a Fluminense fan,’ he added.

We met again that night over dinner. Thomas ‘Tommy’ Struck joined us, a culinary cinema creator at the Berlin Film Festival and a fellow member of the jury in Bra. 

Tommy too recognised football’s role as an international language. That year, to coincide with the World Cup in Germany he produced a DVD, Shoot Goals! Shoot Movies!, an anthology of 45 football shorts by directors from all over the world.

The president of the ‘Slow Food on Film’ jury was the Polish composer Jan Kaczmarek, winner of the Oscar for best soundtrack in 2005 with his music for Finding Neverland, the historical fantasy film about J. M. Barrie starring Johnny Dep. He had just flown in from Los Angeles when I took him for dinner for the first time. 

How to break the ice with him? Solidarity? Music? Cinema? The Oscar ceremony? Life in California? I began with a spiel on a hobby horse of mine: Eastern Europe and the fact that because we don’t study it at school in the West, we know very little about the history of the region. We’re familiar with the names of the great and the good of France and Germany and Italy, say, but we know little or nothing about distinguished Hungarians and Rumanians and Bulgarians and, for that matter, Poles. 

Despite suffering from jet-lag, Jan, a dapper man with a goatee and a dry sense of humour, was surprisingly quick-fire with his wit. ‘Tomaszewski … Gorgon – Szymanowski – Zmuda – Musial,’ he proclaimed in a rousing crescendo (he is a composer after all). ‘Kasperczak – Deyna – Maszczyk – Lato – Szarmach – Gadocha! Heard of them?’

‘Of course I have, it’s the Polish 1974 World Cup team.’

‘Yeah, they’re famous enough names in England and here in Italy, aren’t they? Remember, those were the guys who knocked you English out in the qualifying stages. And then the Azzurri in the preliminary group in Germany, in Stuttgart as I recall. We reached the semi-final, where we were beaten by the Germans, the eventual winners, on a waterlogged pitch. That match should have been postponed.’

Jan Kaczmarek, a refined composer, resident in Los Angeles for years, hadn’t forgotten his football culture.

On the last night of the festival, again over dinner, Tommy Struck introduced me to Bertram Verhaag, a German documentary-maker. I asked him the usual question.

‘Do you like die Fußball?’

Nein,’ he answered.

Nein? I was expecting a Ja.

The meal that followed was satisfying enough but not the most memorable of the festival. Verhaag was the exception who proved my rule.

At the table, talk football – the universal language.

Feature Image: Andrea Pirlo from Juventus Youtube

Written by John Irving@Irving_John

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