For many years Gili Trawangan, a small, low island in the center of the Indonesian archipelago, has drawn foreigners, particularly wandering young backpackers. The visitors rent cheap bungalows, scuba-dive in clear, warm water between Trawangan and Meno, the second of three neighboring islands, and drink beer late into the night at any of a number of simple bars with thatched roofs.
On a summer evening in 1992, as I was walking from the single-lane dirt road that circles Trawangan to a bungalow I shared with a friend, I passed four young boys playing soccer.
One barefooted boy dribbling a red rubber ball cut to the left of a friend playing defense. This boy, also barefoot and with a baseball cap twisted sideways on his head, extended his leg and just missed the ball.
They shouted into the breeze, a kind of celebration of the purest version of the global game that marks its dominance every four years with a tournament, begun again in Korea on Friday, for the World Cup.
But there is so much more, from passion to politics, trepidation to triumph, in the soccer matches large and small that unfold daily in towering stadiums and modest backyards. The finer points of the game - its traditions, strategies, and stakes - are understood like a native language by people in places such as Tegucigalpa, Yaounde, and Lisbon.
Through a traveler's serendipity, like walking into a London pub to find a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd watching the first England-Scotland match in nine years, or determined planning, like the detailed reading of French league statistics, an outsider can begin to know and even feel the power of the world's game.
Travel, across borders and into the action, provides the ticket.
Eight years after Trawangan, on another sun-streaked evening, on another island, this in the Mediterranean, Corsican fans packed the stands at Cesari stadium, home to Sporting Club Bastia.
The crowd chanted, drawing from an island tradition of polyphonic singing. They launched flares, gentle cousins to the bombs that have blown up buildings, and sometimes people, during decades of separatist action against France. They waved white flags emblazoned with the Corsican symbol: the profile of a Moor.
The match would help determine which team, Bastia or Paris Saint-Germain, advanced in French league play. But for many in the crowd, still frustrated by 200 years of French rule, it was a chance for payback.
French soccer has not been plagued by hooliganism as much as England, or Germany. But I had to wonder what those 30 Paris fans, sitting high in the northwest stands, were thinking as they taunted the locals. Paris scored one goal, then another.
As the game drew to a close, the Corsican fans started to climb upward. French national police closed in a line, protecting the Parisians and driving back the Corsicans. But the Corsicans rallied, some 2,000 of them, in the parking lot below, for one hour, then two. They hurled rocks and bottles at police. Even grandfathers and granddaughters shouted at the hostages on high.
"They come from Paris," one calm Corsican told me, pointing upward, "and there you have politicians who don't like Corsica. Voila!"
Two months later, on a plaza in front of Paris's Hotel de Ville, thousands more gathered, this time sitting cross-legged, elbow to elbow, knee to knee, to catch a view of an outdoor, large-screen television. The French national team - World Cup champions in 1998 and a favorite again this year - was facing Portugal in a semifinal match for the Euro Cup, a hard-fought continental contest. The Portuguese fans waved maroon-and-yellow scarves. The French screamed "Allez!" ("Go!")
Nuno Gomes scored an off-balance goal to put Portugal up, 1-0, in the first half. Thierry Henry, a lithe, graceful striker, evened the match early into the second.
Ivan Belevich, a Latvian friend at my side, peppered the scene with memories of players' past heroics. "Is Djorkaeff good?" he said, shocked at my ignorance about the veteran French forward.
The game moved to overtime and the plaza grew quiet. The referee awarded France a penalty kick and the crowd, knowing this would mean a chance for Zinedine Zidane, erupted.
During more than a year in France, I had watched many televised games with their glorious 45-minute halves, free from flashing graphics, or breaks for officials to examine a replay. The matches were often dominated by Zidane, a man born in Marseille with Algerian roots, who in 1998 and 2000 was voted best player in the world. Zidane ran plays full of grace, free of fear. At times, he stopped short on the field, placed the toe of his shoe on the ball and waited. Defenders shifted nervously. Once, at the cavernous Stade de France, north of Paris, I saw Zidane take a pass off the right side of his chest, drop it to his left thigh, then his right foot and finally, with defenders swarming, drive it with his left foot past the diving goalkeeper.
Back on the television in front of city hall, at minute 113 against Portugal, Zidane took his hands from his hips, charged the ball, and drilled the penalty kick into the back of the net. France 2, Portugal 1.
A traveler can easily cross paths with the heaving, honking, waving celebrations that break out after a big soccer win. It happened to me when I exited a restaurant in Madrid in 1988 and found tens of thousands of fans swarming a plaza. It happened again last summer in Lucca, Italy, when I stood on a street corner and watched AS Roma loyalists motor up and down narrow stone streets after the long-suffering team claimed the Italian title.
In Paris, I was on the inside. Tens of thousands of people marched along the rue de Rivoli, across the Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. France would face Italy for the Euro Cup title. The crowd chanted: "On va au final!" ("We are going to the final!") Peugeots and Citroens stood bumper to bumper. "On va au final!"
Four nights later, a young star, David Trezeguet, drove another overtime goal into the net. France 2, Italy 1.
On the rue des Abbesses, in Montmartre, bartenders at Le Sancerre opened the wide wooden doors, removed the windows, and turned the stereo speakers onto the street. The cheese shop and produce stands were shuttered tight; only the wine seller opened late. Nathalie Lauriere, a neighbor, danced on the tables with dozens of others. The ubiquitous French riot police were nowhere to be seen. The crowd echoed a new chant: "On est champion!" ("We are champions!")
The next spring, my friend Florencio stopped me on the street three blocks from Le Sancerre. France was to play Brazil in Korea the next day, at 10 a.m. Paris time, and Flo wanted to watch the game on the television in my apartment.
Flo, a native of Angola, a speaker of Portuguese, a lover of all things Latin, had mixed allegiances. He cherished the rhythm of Brazilian play. But after 20 years in France, he found it hard not to cheer Les Bleus, as the blue-shirted Frenchmen are called.
Normally an energetic man of many words, Flo sat quietly through the first half. I left for an appointment. France won, 2-1. When I returned home that evening, I found a half-eaten tray of peanuts and a simple note:
"Merci pour cette belle matinee du foot." ("Thanks for this beautiful morning of soccer.")
On a muggy night nearly one year later, in a suburb south of Buenos Aires, I laced up borrowed shoes, two sizes too big, and pulled on a worn soccer jersey, also borrowed.
An Argentine friend had brought me to a local gym to play pick-up soccer, five against five. The gym's narrow, cement field was hemmed in by high walls.
The walls were chipped, the lighting dim. Fresh air wafted down from a netted opening at the top of one wall.
The other players had each grown up kicking a ball around the yard, hearing parents and neighbors hashing over the last game played by Boca Juniors, Independiente, or the Argentine national team, two-time World Cup champions and a favorite this year.
I was clearly an outsider here, a speaker of English more adept at throwing a football than kicking one.
But I had learned on my journeys that no other game connects a traveler so closely to so many languages and cultures and people. Some of those people, from Nuno to Ivan to Flo, had taught me enough to understand what was happening in that gym south of Buenos Aires.
There were no booming kicks, no mad dashes up field. The point was to play gracefully, to move the ball with a series of tight passes.
We kept no score. Despite my many errant kicks, a teammate passed me the ball left of the goal. My shot sailed high right, but brought a cheer in Spanish.
After nearly an hour, as a woman prepared to sound the buzzer that would end our time, I found myself in front of the net again.
A teammate on the right side sent in a soft pass. I noticed another teammate cutting behind me toward the goal. If only I could move, for a moment, like Zinedine Zidane. If I could just kick the ball, ever so slightly, into the path of my breaking teammate.
I raised my foot and turned to meet the ball.
Tom Haines can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.