27. THE LANGUAGE OF FOOTBALL: “GOALS WIN GAMES” & OTHER TIRED TRUISMS
Which cliché irritates you more: "at the end of the day" or "it was a game of two halves"? These are just a few of the 30 most hated football phrases, according to a 2018 survey by betting site MobileSlots. In the words of the study's commissioner, "a football match isn't quite complete without a pundit or commentator driving you round the bend with their tired truisms about the game."
Language within the game
What better time to delve into the language of football than the closing stages of UEFA Euro '2020'? After all, this has been the first truly large-scale mixing of teams and fans from different nations since lockdowns began, and the 24 competing countries have brought with them a total of 83 official languages at either a national or regional level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia adds over a quarter of these, but a special mention goes to the Czech Republic for recognising Vietnamese as one of its 12 minority languages. While major sporting competitions bring people closer together physically, they're an ample opportunity to examine the linguistic divides between us.
This different meeting of languages has had more of an impact on the game than we might expect. Yellow and red cards, for instance, seem as integral to football as free kicks or diving, yet were only introduced in 1970. During the 1966 World Cup, a dispute between German referee Rudolf Kreitlein and Argentinian midfielder Antonio Rattín caused a 10-minute hold-up as Rattín demanded that a Spanish translator explain why he was being sent off. A colour-based system proved a logical solution, although FIFA now requires officials to speak English and strongly encourages them to learn Spanish, French or German.
The game as a language
A bit more poetically, football has also been called a language in and of itself. Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, for instance, thought of it as "an authentic semiotic system, which frames and expresses culture as a whole - so that different cultures play football in different ways...the ciphers of this language are the players; we, in the stands, are the decrypters, so we share a code in common." In his view, Europeans play football as prose and Brazilians as poetry, although he didn't live long enough to see the latter switch to tragedies at the 2014 World Cup.
Interestingly enough, the football realm is actually quite conservative in its approach to the language used to describe the game, retaining an unusually high number of words which border on archaic in other contexts. As Adam Hurrey points out in his book Football Clichés, in few places other than punditry would you hear words like 'stalwart', 'profligate' and 'adjudged'. Likewise, a 'raft' is today rarely used to mean a large amount of anything but substitutions.
And what about the language of the players themselves? In an increasingly international sport (and world), it's no surprise that all major clubs are made up of people from multiple nations and linguistic groups: Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku, for instance, speaks fluent French, Dutch, Swahili, English, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, while Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has been known to rapidly switch between Spanish, Catalan, English and German while communicating with players.
Let's not get carried away though on the incredible language skills of footballers - after all, it's still a game in which former England manager Kevin Keegan could stake out a reasonably successful career while making such statements as "the tide is very much in our court now", "I don't think there's anyone bigger or smaller than Maradona" and "the 33 or 34-year-olds will be 36 or 37 by the time the next World Cup comes around, if they're not careful." If that was on target, it would have been a goal.