EVERYONE IN THE CIRCLE IS FOCUSED ON THE BALL. Never mind the damp and miserable conditions, the control of the muddied white sphere is paramount. As one player receives the ball, he deftly lifts it just over his head, and cushions it on the nape of his neck, before flicking it up and trapping it a few inches off the ground. Others watch expectantly, before he volleys it delicately back into the circle as an invitation for someone else to outdo him. A pretender to his throne pounces on the opportunity, and takes a wild swing at the ball, hammering it over the nearby houses, before triumphantly announcing; “‘ave it! Oo yes”.
English viewers laughed at Peter Kay’s uncultured volley in an advert for John Smith’s bitter. It was a distillation of the good old traditional values of ‘No Nonsense’, as the slogan went, two fingers to the ‘flashy foreigner’ with his tricks and flicks that Emlyn Hughes disliked. Of course the advert was tongue in cheek, but did its popularity reveal a gaping hole in English football culture? Even the implied lack of the letter “h” was telling.
When the American sportswear giant Nike chose a slogan to sum up football, it went for ‘O Jogo Bonito’, not ‘The Beautiful Game’. This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, using the vision of free-flowing, instinctive, almost cocky arrogance helped them tap into the inner street footballer in all fans; everyone wants to believe they have a touch of Latin America about them. The advertising arm of the company would not have chosen those exact words if they thought it would not have appealed to as broad an audience as possible. Just because the stereotypical English values of tough tackling and an indefatigable work ethic are diametrically opposed to the showmanship of the Brazilian game, it doesn’t mean English fans can’t appreciate the beauty of the samba beat.
Secondly, at the risk of stating the obvious, the meanings of those two phrases are the same. Despite the status of English as the pre-eminent global language, the reason ‘O Jogo Bonito’ was chosen was clearly to appeal to the notion of Brazilian flair and confidence. ‘The Beautiful Game’ just doesn’t carry the same cache. In short, language matters.
Philippe Auclair bemoans the paucity of descriptive language in the English footballing lexicon in his superb biography of the king of football artistry, Eric Cantona. When covering the early stages of Cantona’s career in England, he stood aghast at the inability of his English counterparts to paint a picture of graceful moments of inspiration with anything other than the word ‘flick’. He has a point: try and describe Danny Welbeck’s instinctive finish against Sweden at Euro 2012 without using it.
Auclair’s argument stems from the fact that some of the most prodigious talents in European football were born on these shores, and yet we aren’t able to do them justice with our language. Paul Gascoigne’s majestic coup de sombrero, as the French would have called it, against Scotland at Wembley at Euro ’96 had everything – arrogance, showboating, significance, complete and utter ridicule of his opponent, the unfortunate Colin Hendry – and yet was almost universally described as, surprise surprise, a ‘flick’ over Hendry’s head.
Sir Stanley Mathews, a Potter every bit as magical as Harry, may not have been the first to drop his shoulder, but to use it so effectively for so long tells you how complete his mastery of the simplest of skills was. If he had been French, the body swerve would have been named in his honour, but instead it is described using mundane, functional words; accurate, but hardly inspiring.
A polarising figure who encapsulates the contrast between English and Continental European attitudes is the giant Swede behemoth Zlatan Ibrahimović. A common thread of pub talk in England says that he is vastly overrated and that he always underperforms when he comes up against English teams. And yet such has been his magnetic, destructive power over opponents in France, that he has inspired a new verb, ‘Zlataner’, which translates roughly to eviscerate.
What he undeniably has is what Latin Americans call ‘garra’; literally meaning claw, it refers to a tough, street-fighting refusal to accept defeat. The Paraguayan-based journalist Ralph Hannah envisages it as the claw of a bird of prey clinging onto something for dear life. This attitude is one that characterised the Australian cricket team around the turn of the century, but which is noticeably absent from English teams. That is not to say English sportsmen don’t have the stomach for a fight, quite on the contrary. But where they might applaud a stiff upper lip, a gritty determination to survive, a ‘backs against the wall’ defence, other nations are already turning the negative situation into fuel for an aggressive domination of an opponent.
On the other hand, you could ask that if the words are simply not in the vocabulary of a nation, how can people describe a moment as effectively as in other languages? Is it the fault of the fans on the terraces if they don’t have the tools to sculpt a work of beauty on a page? The answers are not very straightforward at first glance. Languages evolve, adapt and absorb from cultures they connect with, and English more than most has inherited words and phrases from other parts of the world. When a new style of cafe with fast service and simple fare became popular, for example, we didn’t simply say ‘quick cafe’, but bistro (taken from French, which in turn was taken from the Russian word meaning quick).
Terms are frequently transposed directly into languages from others instead of creating an indigenous phrase, so why can’t the same happen in football parlance? The nearest we get as a football supporting nation to creating new phrases is simply reworking old words in a new situation. Italians say ‘zona cesarini’, named after Juventus, Napoli and Torino midfielder Renato Cesarini, to describe the tense final moments of matches when last gasp goals can change the outcome. Sir Alex Ferguson, however, inadvertently spawned the less cerebral ‘squeaky bum time’.
Then there are the more downright comical exponents of English. Figures such as Chris Kamara and Ron Atkinson would not receive such a cult following for their wordsmanship in other countries, and yet Kamara’s persistence with the adjective ‘unbelievable’ has earned him huge popularity as a live pundit on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday. Atkinson’s comments have even given birth to ‘Ronglish’; at times, is very hard to discern logical meaning between the mixed metaphors and bizarre choices of descriptive phrases. To this day, I don’t think anyone quite understands why Big Ron chose the term ‘lollipop’ to describe a step over. Phil Neville once analysed his game and decided he needed to augment his repertoire of ball skills to improve as a player. He chose to practice this movement on the training ground with the feverish discipline that Manchester United’s ‘Class of ’92’ were famous for, but his teammates’ reactions were telling; rather than encourage his bravado, they fell about laughing.
Atkinson certainly understood the concept of marrying success with entertainment. This was the man who announced his arrival in the most highly pressured managerial position in English football at Old Trafford by pouring champagne for the assembled press in the lounge of a Manchester nightclub. Part of his image involved using his unique language. It may not have been cultured in the way that it came out, but people listened. Neville’s lack of success after studying how to produce a trick rather than spontaneously create it may have had the same clumsy, awkward nature about it, but it demonstrated a laudable trait of unending self-improvement.
So what does the English language say about the footballing style? Overt, public demonstrations of flamboyant extravagance are simply not the done thing in the English game, and despite the fluid interchange of terminology around the world today, phrases that depict such moments are prominent in their absence. But does this really matter? Is the answer to copy expressions from Spanish, French, Italian or Portuguese in the hope that they will inspire a new entertaining style?
We need look no further than our transatlantic cousins for answers. For years, the attempts to popularise the Beautiful Game stateside have been met with derision, from Diana Ross’s missed penalty in the opening ceremony of the 1994 World Cup, to the early stages of the MLS insisting on there being no draws. Many armchair experts have torn their hair out at the sound of turns of phrase such as ‘soccer’, ‘o-ffense’ and ‘in the top 90!’ For all these supposed faults, the USA are winning the respect of the footballing world by sticking to their own style, using their own values and their own vocabulary. During the World Cup in Brazil, they won over many neutrals; not by copying anyone, but by being themselves.
Before anyone bemoans the lack of descriptive football language in England, they should pause for a moment, and consider whether we need it. A lack of instantly colourful words forces writers to show skill in manipulating seemingly ordinary vocabulary, which requires extraordinary mental agility at the highest level; a literary ‘garra’, if you will.
As many commentators have pointed out, while it would be wonderful to be able to copy Germany’s blueprint for world domination, it is both impractical and undesirable. When Derice Bannock attempted to impose the Swiss style of bobsledding onto his Jamaican team in Cool Runnings by saying; “I’m just trying to be the best I can be,” his sidekick Sanka Cofi responded; “The best I can be is Jamaican. If we eat Jamaican, sleep Jamaican, and be (sic) Jamaican, then we sure as hell ought to bobsled Jamaican.” Sanka may have only been a comical dreadlocked character from a Disney feel-good film, but if we follow his advice, we may just discover what it is to be English.
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint