When Brazilian soccer legend Pele called his sport "the beautiful game," he may have been talking about the lush green of the field and the poetry of bodies in controlled motion. But for me, soccer's greatest beauty is its ability to inspire fans across the world to gather, cheer and celebrate. As a big fan of soccer — really, football — I am often among those gathering, cheering and celebrating.
In anticipation of the World Cup finals, beginning June 11 in South Africa, I chose five of my favorite cities whose nations are competing in the World Cup. Each city has a unique football tradition, and each is a fitting venue in which to embrace the spectacle of the World Cup. If you're not among the fortunate with tickets to the matches, consider visiting these stadiums to learn why "the beautiful game" rings true.
Some consider this city to be the birthplace of soccer. It is a bottomless treasure chest for the football connoisseur.
Where to watch: Wembley Stadium is the ancestral home of English football. This soccer pantheon was built in 1923 and renovated in 2000. The English national side plays its games here, in front of capacity crowds of almost 90,000. http://www.wembleystadium.com
Why: Wembley Stadium evokes emotion just by uttering its hallowed name. It's considered one of the top five stadiums in the world and carries with it an unmistakable sense of history, such as England's 4-2 victory in the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany.
Best place to catch the spirit: Goat in Boots is my favorite spot in London to watch matches. It boasts a wonderful staff, even though most of them support Chelsea. Located off the famous Kings Road, it has retained the Sloane Ranger chic made famous in the '80s. 333 Fulham Road, Chelsea, London; http://www.goatinboots.co.uk.
Buenos Aires is a hotbed of soccer fanaticism; just ask anyone who has experienced the local derby between archrivals River Plate and Boca Juniors.
Where to watch: Estadio Alberto J. Armando, fondly called La Bombonera, "The Chocolate Box," with a capacity of 49,000. http://www.bocajuniors.com.ar/en-us/la-bombonera
Why: Argentines are soccer crazy, and their passion for the game must be seen to be believed. La Bombonera is the home of Argentine wizard Diego Armando Maradona, who plied his trade for Boca Juniors, among others. His beloved Boca calls this stadium home, and it is not uncommon to see him in the stands cheering on his local team. I suggest you make it to the local derby between Boca and archrival River Plate. You'll return home with quite a story to tell.
Best place to catch the spirit: Buenos Aires is often called the "Paris of South America," so on game day, soak up the atmosphere in Casa Bar, a restored French mansion. It's big-screen heaven, and you can mingle with foreigners and locals alike. 1150 Rodríguez Peña, Recoleta, Buenos Aires; http://www.casabarbuenosaires.com
A surprise addition. Japan is not renowned for its football heritage, but its citizens are refreshingly passionate and optimistic about their team's chances in the tournament.
Where to watch: Ajinomoto Stadium (formerly Tokyo Stadium), with a capacity of 50,000, is the home of J. League soccer clubs F.C. Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy 1969. http://www.stadiumguide.com/ajinomoto.htm
Why: At first glance the stadium seems impersonal and monolithic, but it's definitely a fan favorite. The seats are far from the pitch, but the intensity of the noise makes up for the distance.
Best place to catch the spirit: Tokyo is peppered with places to indulge your football cravings, but the Tokyo Sports Café is my preferred spot because of its buzzing Roppongi location and affable service. 2F, Fusion Building, 7-13-8 Roppongi, Minato-ku; http://www.tokyo-sportscafe.com
Auckland, New Zealand
The Kiwis may be head-over-heels for their rugby team, but its unexpected qualification for the World Cup finals has sparked a new passion for the game.
Where to watch: Mt. Smart Stadium, in an Auckland regional park, has a capacity of 30,000. ww.mtsmartstadium.co.nz/
Why: The 2010 World Cup finals are just the second time this nation has qualified. The first was in 1982, when the All Whites played their qualifying games in Mt. Smart Stadium. There are grander stadiums to watch matches in Auckland, but none with such a living sense of New Zealand football history. These days the venue is used mostly for rugby matches.
Best place to catch the spirit: The Flying Moa pub is a sanctuary for the sports-obsessed fan. The food is primarily European, and the local kiwi service is the epitome of graciousness. 65 Lunn Ave., Mt. Wellington, Auckland;
Los Angeles area
Soccer has to complete here with other "bigger" sports, but its fan base is devout and growing.
Why: The stadium is home to David Beckham and two Major League Soccer teams, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA. Although Beckham has had recent troubles, his presence (and that of his wife, Victoria) in the City of Angels has piqued interest in soccer.
Best place to catch the spirit: The L.A. area's soccer-loving "community" is scattered — isn't that the L.A. way? — and consists not only of ex-pats from soccer-friendlier countries around the globe but also more and more Americans, many of whom played the sport in youth programs. One interesting place to watch soccer is Ye Olde King's Head pub in Santa Monica, which has a large British community. It has a pumping atmosphere on game days, and you can always find a shoulder to cry on if your team is defeated. 116 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica; (310) 451-1402, http://www.yeoldekingshead.com