‘The Language of Football’

“As far back as I can remember, I have associated a British accent with football {soccer}, and that we can watch these games here in basically their original form is to me what makes them so appealing and popular…

“This thought struck me on a recent Sunday morning as I watched a ‘Serie A’ match with the sound off. I have spent about three years of my life living in Italy and have followed ‘Serie A’ intently ever since I was introduced to it as a wide-eyed 16-year-old. That morning, the sound was off because my girlfriend was still asleep, but more and more I’ve found myself watching these games without the sound, which seems almost a contaminant.

“It’s not that the quality of the commentary in English is that bad – it is pretty bad, though – it’s more that it just doesn’t fit the game the way the actual Italian commentary does. As in this country, where language and sport seem to have evolved side-by-side, the same is true in Italy and any viewing without the original audio is incomplete.

“As I’m sure an American would feel, there was something missing watching an NFL broadcast with a British announcer, or a Canadian watching an NHL game even with an American commentator, I realised how vital a companion commentary is to sport. For rather than watching a ‘Serie A’ game, I feel more that I’m watching and listening to somebody else watching the game, with an added layer of detachment. It’s not just that the observations are more astute and the passion more felt – in Italian, at least, the language applied to football has meshed perfectly with the action it describes, or perhaps vice-versa.

“To begin with, the Italians have their own name for the game: ‘calcio’, literally ‘kick’, preferring not to Latinize the word ‘football’ as the Spanish (‘fútbol’), French (‘le foot’) and Portuguese (‘futebol’) all have. In my very first Italian class, when a student asked the teacher why Italians didn’t use a simple variation like the Spanish, she replied, without even the hint of a smile, that it was

“because we are much better at soccer than the Spanish”.

“Italian football is often criticised for being overly dramatic, with players spending too much time on the ground feigning injury, or encircling the referee with pleading hand gestures or dropping to the grass, faces in their hands, after a missed opportunity. English commentators love to lament such moments. All these criticisms are legitimate, but at the same time, given the language of the game, it doesn’t seem it could be any other way, for an Italian match is more than just that; it is a performance in which the players are fighting not only to win but also to win over the audience, with the field the ultimate stage.

“In Italian, for instance, a player does not play a position (‘posizione’), but rather their role (‘ruolo’) and while English commentators will use the word, it is used more to describe what a player’s position entails, not the player’s actual position itself. Coaches will often speak post-match about how a certain player “interpreted their role”, or how their team “interpreted the match” as a whole.

“On the field, the playmaker is called a ‘regista’, or ‘director’, while players who exchange passes are said to ‘dialogare’ — literally ‘to dialogue’ — and a goal is not scored, but rather ‘authored’ (‘l’autore del gol’). A player who is often at the centre of the action becomes the game’s ‘protagonista’, with the potential to ‘risolvere la partita’, or ‘resolve the match’. A particularly creative player may also be praised for his ‘fantasia’, while a true legend of the game like Francesco Totti or Roberto Baggio is a ‘maestro’.

“A team’s passing or possession may be referred to as its ‘fraseggio’, which means literally its ‘phrasing’, a term often used to describe musical expression and precision. A player’s individual move is a ‘numero’, his error or lapse in judgment a ‘pasticcio’, or ‘pastiche’, while his shot on goal is a ‘conclusione’, which, should he miss, is considered ‘fallita’, or ‘failed’ — the same word used to describe bankruptcy.

“A ball is not won from the opposing team, but instead ‘conquistato’, or ‘conquered’ and is not trapped but ‘addomesticato’, ‘domesticated’. A challenge from an opposing player is a ‘contrasto’, or ‘conflict’; a match-up, a ‘duello’, and a penalty kick a ‘rigore’, or ‘rigour’. Meanwhile, all this drama plays out in front of the ‘pubblico’ in the stands, whose near non-stop singing of ‘cori’, ‘choruses’, are just as likely to jeer a team’s victory than celebrate it, depending on the performance itself.

“It’s impossible to say if the game adapted to the language of the stage or the other way ‘round, but certainly this colourful commentary lends a ‘Serie A’ match the gravitas it warrants. Suddenly, it makes sense why everything is so dramatised and why the highest praise a commentator can bestow upon a match is that of ‘spettacolo’, the word for both ‘spectacle’ and a ‘play’, or why an opposing coach, after losing to Napoli in the autumn, described his opponents in wonder as “una sinfonia”, “a symphony”.

“Interestingly, to describe new trends in the game, the Italian language often looks outward, incorporating many English terms such as ‘pressing’, ‘tap-in’, ‘Mister’, ‘assist’, ‘cross’, ‘dribbling’ and ‘stretching’, that are both appallingly pronounced and sometimes even carry a reimagined meaning. ‘Dribbling’, for instance, becomes a noun in Italian, so instead of a dribble to beat someone, a player executes a dribbling, and an ‘assist’ need only lead to a goal-scoring opportunity to count as such, not necessarily a goal. Whether misunderstandings or not, these neologisms only add to the charm and idiosyncrasy of the ‘calcio’ lexicon.

“There are many other issues with the presentation of the ‘Serie A’ on television – a lack of fans and outdated stadiums sit high – but to me the biggest is the language barrier. I’m sure fans of the ‘Bundesliga’, ‘Ligue 1’ and ‘LaLiga’ would all have similar complaints, and this is why audiences around the world will continue to flock to, and enjoy, the ‘Premier League’. The availability of these games on television is thus both amazing and frustrating, the same way the coffee from my Italian espresso maker will never taste quite as good here. Something is missing, and so I watch and sip in silence.”

–‘Lost in translation: why the Italian game is never the same in English’,
Sam Griswold, The Football Times, 01/23/2018

Feature IMAGE: Gianni Brera–the godfather of calcio writings (Football Times)


THE DELL (Southampton, 1898-2001)

“Football has developed a voracious appetite for stealing, commandeering and recycling phrases from elsewhere for its own (invariably clumsy) purposes. The game possesses a surprising number of obsolete words that originated elsewhere but still flourish here. It doesn’t require much sticking out of the neck to suggest that most football fans wouldn’t use ‘stalwart‘, ‘profligate‘, ‘adjudged‘, ‘diminutive‘ or the verbal form of ‘rifle‘ if those words hadn’t been given a new lease of life in their adopted sporting context. Nor would they ever describe something being done ‘with aplomb‘, while only the engineers among us could identify a real-life slide rule.

“While breathless broadcasting is responsible for the more questionable and ham-fisted football clichés, the printed word is where the more refined part of the football vernacular has slowly been allowed to mature over generations. Millions of match reports have had to find a variety of ways to describe goals, horror tackles and emphatic victories. However, just as a co-commentator must hurriedly cobble together a coherent sentence, newspaper editors have to work within strict limits on their back pages. Economy of space has promoted the use of certain words that are ubiquitous in tabloid headlines in particular, but which you could never say out loud with a straight face (unless you’re a ‘Sky Sports News’ presenter).

“…Football’s surprisingly-subtle relationship with grammar bears curious fruit. While the animal world enjoys an innumerable complement of collective nouns, ranging from the wonderfully alliterative to the impenetrably obscure, you may not be surprised to learn that football has quite a few of its own. For reasons of sensationalism, laziness, inaccuracy or simply diversity, football coverage has demanded that a selection of collective nouns be made available, to be drawn from whenever appropriate. The list covers all aspects of the game and leaves us in no doubt (despite the lack of cold, hard numbers) of how one should pluralise the subjects in question:

Raft of substitutions
“The sole domain of largely-meaningless international friendlies, where the second half becomes fragmented by the experimentation of both coaches as they seek to give debuts to their one-cap wonders. Such games have a tendency to peter out until someone finally, inevitably, asks: “What have we learned?

Host of opportunities
“Hosts tend to be fairly undesirable collections of missed opportunities, or absentees from the first team.

Hatful of chances
“A more flamboyant exaggeration, used to ridicule the striker that has missed these chances, some of which may have been gilt-edged. This represents one of the more imprecise units of measurement in football, as there seems to be no official confirmation of the volume of an average hat. Confusingly, though, while the misfiring hitman can fill a hat with squandered opportunities, he can also successfully score a ‘hatful‘. Or, indeed, ‘fill his boots‘.

String of chances
“Chances may arrive in strings, as can a goalkeeper’s saves or a player’s impressive performances. Deviating slightly from the grammatical theme, teams will also aim to ‘string’ some wins together or, at the very least, two or three passes.

Run of victories
“Similar to a ‘string of wins’, but tends to be more smoothly and less desperately put together and, therefore, more suited to a march towards the title rather than a Great Escape from relegation.

“A pair of goals for a player in one game, although simply the word ‘brace’ alone is now sufficient, as nothing else football-related arrives in that form. ‘Braces’ can be quickfire in nature, but leave the goalscorer vulnerable to be substituted before he can complete his ‘hat-trick’.

Flurry of yellow cards
“Card-happy referees can sometimes end a barren first half-hour or so by unleashing a ‘flurry of yellow cards’ in quick succession. They will seek to justify this sudden outburst of disciplinarianism by pointing out various areas of the pitch to bemused perpetrators of persistent fouling.

Array of talent
“Most commonly found at major tournaments or on expensively-assembled substitute benches, but can also arrive on a club’s youthful conveyor belt. The elite clubs, however, often boast a ‘galaxy of stars’.

Mass of bodies
“Generally located somewhere in the midst of an almighty penalty-area scramble, a ‘mass of bodies’ can be the reason for a statuesque goalkeeper being unsighted, as a strike from all of 30 yards flies through a forest of legs and into the net. Elsewhere on the pitch, high-pressing teams coordinate their considerable efforts to form a ‘swarm of [insert colour here] shirts’ to win back precious possession.

Embarrassment of riches
“To further emphasise the options a manager has at his disposal, the international caps and transfer fees of his substitutes are gleefully totted up to illustrate his ‘embarrassment of riches’, often (rather aptly) while they are being humbled by a side who were assembled for the price of a four-bedroom house.

Glut of goals
“A goal glut can occur in a specific competition, particularly a weekend of league fixtures in a single division. We will be excitedly told how many goals flew in during the 10 or so matches, leaving us to do the maths ourselves to decide if that is actually impressive or not.

Catalogue of errors
“The helpful football media dutifully compile these to shame hapless individual players at a later date. Alternatively, unfortunate players may wish to browse their catalogue of injuries after they’ve been forced to hang up their boots. It’s not just disappointments that are figuratively documented, though – scorers of great goals invariably have a scrapbook to keep them in.

Series of high-profile gaffes
“A more focused and specific offshoot of the ‘catalogue of errors’, a ‘series of high-profile gaffes’ tends to be more easily attributed to goalkeepers. The ‘series of high-profile gaffes’ becomes so because Sky Sports News insist on endlessly looping footage of its contents.

Legends such as Sir Stanley Matthews used to play at The Victoria Ground, the home of Stoke City for more than 100 years.

“Footballers love to be in the headlines, unless it’s for all the wrong reasons. In an era when pretty much anything players do, on or off the pitch, is liable to be shoehorned into a red-top or internet headline, the football media has developed a set of space-saving keywords (mostly of no more than three to five letters) that account for any incident:

“Where better to start than with the ace? Despite its elite connotations, ‘aceness‘ is a conveniently fluid concept in the world of newspaper headlines. ‘Premier League’ youth-teamers convicted of driving offences — or ‘League Two’ players caught in compromising situations in hotels — qualify as ‘aces’ on the basis of sensationalism alone, to the point where using the word to describe those genuinely at the pinnacle of the game seems woefully insufficient.

“The most excruciating wait to be put out of one’s misery is when a beleaguered manager (or boss, for these purposes) ‘faces the axe’. In the interests of pedantry, it should be emphasised that managers are never ultimately hit by the axe, they are simply ‘axed‘. It can also be used to describe players being dropped from the squad – not only are they ‘axed‘, but they are also ‘frozen out‘. It’s a cruel world.

“Normally associated with proposed transfer deals, ‘bid’ can also appear as a synonym for a team’s efforts to achieve a season-long goal (such as the league title), but without quite the focused determination of a ‘vow‘.

“A vitriolic burst of criticism, with various possible sources or targets – often a poor, defenceless referee.

“A disappointing event, invariably associated with injuries. The ‘hammer blow’, however, is exclusive to title bids.

“The polar opposite of a ‘blow’.

Tight-lipped” managers remain ‘coy’ when asked about new signings – talking about players at other clubs (like talking about referees) is something managers go out of their way to say they don’t do, while still actually doing it, anyway.

“A type of ‘blow’, but one that only affects a ‘bid’ or someone’s hopes, and rarely terminal (unlike, say, a ‘hammer blow’ or a ‘derailing’).

“’Eyeing‘ is the more voyeuristic equivalent of keeping tabs on a player, before mulling over a ‘bid’.

“The departure from a cup competition. If the circumstances are calamitous enough, clubs can also ‘crash out’ of a cup, or even be unceremoniously ‘dumped out’. Any of which may usher their manager towards the exit door.

“After a controversial incident, but before its punishment is meted out, the accused player or club (or soon-to-be-axed manager) will be held in the purgatory of simply facing their fate.

“Victorious managers feel compelled to ‘hail’ a collective or individual performance, or the vocal support of the (no doubt-magnificent) fans.

“Form-book defying stalemates usually involve a frustrated side being ‘held’. Sufficiently vague for use with any type of draw, regardless of who scored first or if it was a 0-0 stalemate.

“After facing an FA probe and taking the subsequent rap, the miscreant can then be ‘hit’ with a fine (or, indeed, ‘slapped’ with a ban). Also used as shorthand for impressive goalscoring feats (‘Ronaldo hits four in Real rout’) or specifically sized capitulations (‘Droylsden hit for six’).

“The traditionally-sneaky opening move in a bout of mind games, which can escalate to a ‘war of words’.

“Exploiting its diminutive stature to the full, ‘joy’ is the weapon of choice to describe a manager’s/player’s happiness.

“The expected preliminary investigations of the FA (or, in more extreme cases, the police) which are invariably ‘faced’ before they are launched.

“The act of managers returning to recent former employers to cherry-pick their favourite players, ideally in one single deal. Suggests a certain cynicism from the bidding club, and a level of helplessness on the part of the seller.

“A cult favourite, this diminutive word is far catchier than ‘disciplinary proceedings’. An FA probe inevitably leads to an FA ‘rap’, two headline-friendly terms that cannot help but conjure up images rather different to their intended meaning. Such disciplinary proceedings attempt to bring closure to an ongoing row of some sort, be it a mere war of words or a full-blown, I’d-rather-be-punched-in-the-face spit-spat. Even the most serious issues, such as race rows, are effectively trivialised for the purposes of alliteration.

“The rubber-stamping of a transfer deal (protracted or otherwise) or the relatively untroubled progression of a club to the next round of a cup competition.

Set for
“Similar to facing something, but without the ominous threat, clubs tend to be ‘set for’ cup draws, while players patiently find themselves ‘set’ for a move elsewhere.

“The equivalent of ‘beleaguered’ for clubs who have capitulated and been very heavily defeated.

“Late or unexpected winning goals have the tendency to ‘stun’, particularly if Goliath ever faces a tricky trip to face David in the FA Cup.

“A swiftly completed move, unfettered by any prolonged haggling or red tape.

“Similar to a raid, if rather less exciting and more smoothly completed, it again refers to a bigger club signing a player from a smaller club. These can often be bulk purchases, neatly described as double or triple ‘swoops’.

“Nobody in football promises to do anything, they always ‘vow’ – silencing the boo-boys is a common vow, as is a player’s repaying of a manager’s faith.

Sunderland team in 1884…
“In days long ago when Association football players wore beards and breeches, instead of being clean shaven and donning shorts or running pants, newspapers, as a whole, took very little notice of matches. The reports were brief, and there were none of the personal paragraphs, garrulous items, and more or less sensational news which are now part not only of weekly periodicals, but of morning and evening newspapers.”
–James A. Catton

“Emphatic scorelines also lend themselves to catchy headlines involving vaguely familiar phrases of unclear origin. The fun begins at around the four-goal mark, with a handy hotel-rating analogy:

Four goals = FOUR-STAR
Five goals = FIVE-STAR
Eight goals = (no cliché allocated, although GR-8 is making a spirited, if clumsy, attempt to establish itself in recent seasons)
Nine goals = CLOUD NINE

“Naturally, we all want to know who the protagonists are in the latest football pantomime, so desperate red-top headline writers can be seen to resort to painful, puzzling abbreviations such as MOU, WENG or the punned-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life ROO. You won’t have to look too hard in tomorrow’s papers to find these three- and four-letter codewords and, once you’ve started spotting them, the more ridiculous they will start to look. Unless the FA’s disciplinary panel really are spitting sick rhymes from an orbiting space module.”

–Adam Hurrey,
Excerpt from his book, “Football Clichés”


See also:
Covering Up Sexual Abuse?‘ (British Football) {May 23, 2017}:
“Eight of the {U.K.} professional football clubs contacted by the independent inquiry into the game’s sexual-abuse scandal have failed to respond and now risk disciplinary action unless they tell the investigators what they know…”


More Than A Headache{Feb. 9, 2017}:
“Former Liverpool striker Ian St. John has called on football’s leaders to look after former professionals who have dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The 78-year-old ex-Scotland international says several of his old team-mates are affected.

“He believes it is as the result of heading heavy footballs in the 1950s and ’60s…”


Terror Attack’ (Borussia Dortmund) {April 12, 2017}:
“German police have detained a suspect with “Islamist links” following a bomb attack on the bus of the ‘Borussia Dortmund’ football team.

“Borussia Dortmund players were on their way to their home ‘Champions League’ quarter-final first-leg match against Monaco, when three explosive charges detonated, police said…”

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